Washington, DC

Vernon Fisher

Parallel Lines, Vernon Fisher’s site-specific installation on the second and third levels of the Hirshhorn Museum, comprised eight 12-by-13-foot, latex-and-oilstick wall drawings. Unlike many installations which would be more accurately termed in situ than site-specific, Fisher’s installation was carefully linked to its site. The Hirshhorn is a disc-shaped structure supported on four large piers; its only windows line circular hallway galleries that face an inner court. The drawings’ location in these narrow circular spaces exploited the museum’s shape, forcing the viewer to see them both separately and in a linear sequence underscoring their implied narrative. The Hirshhorn’s design, similar to that of a military bunker, also seemed not to have been lost on Fisher, for the ecological/political themes that often recur in his work were here focused on the military.

All of the drawings had a flat black ground, integrating text and mathematical formulas with diagrams and illusionistic images. Executed in white, as though on school blackboards, they metaphorically suggested the human mind as a tabula rasa that gets covered with information from varying sources. This information exists either as conscious knowledge (represented here by precisely drawn images) or memory traces (suggested by smudged and partially erased images), and is transformed in the passage from childhood to adulthood.

The appropriated images used in these drawings were taken from generic sources and carefully calculated to arouse associations through style as much as through subject matter. Neither estheticized nor personalized, they acted as vessels waiting to be filled by the viewer’s personal memories. Individual drawings were aligned both horizontally and vertically—each drawing on the lower level, the realm of childhood, had its counterpart directly above on the next level, the realm of adulthood. In one pair of drawings, an evocation of childhood memories—learning to read, Dick and Jane, playing with toy airplanes and submarine—was transformed into a factual text about ELF, the navy’s extremely low-frequency Trident-submarine communication system. Other pairs also established a metamorphic relationship between similar images and shapes: a floating beach ball was transformed into a floating mine; a father and son carving a pumpkin were paralleled above with father and son carving a globe; a toy-sailboat illustration set against Halloween skeletons elsewhere materialized as the silhouette of a warship over diagrammatic skeletal parts.

The strength of Fisher’s installation was in the way the drawings, separated by considerable space and on two floors, forced the viewer to rely on real memory to recall details from one drawing to another in order to reconstruct and integrate the installation. This physical arrangement helped demonstrate, literally, how memory works to construct world views. But by presenting overly idyllic, stereotypical visions of childhood, Fisher ultimately limited the scope of his project. Images carry numerous associations and meanings that profoundly rewrite memory. That this crucial issue was left unexplored worked against an otherwise powerful installation.

Howard Risatti