San Diego

Vernon Fisher

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego | La Jolla

Conceptual, language-based artists dedicated to the slippery semantics of the open text are particularly ill-served by the museum retrospective. When their work is shown en masse, it tends to be circumscribed by a confining second and third order of denotation, that of naturalizing museum discourse itself. This was particularly true of Vernon Fisher’s long-awaited but ultimately disappointing mid-career retrospective. The exhibition placed Fisher within the familiar image-as-text, text-as-image lineage, with its predictably dysfunctional rhetoric of arbitrary cultural codes and destabilized meaning. However, when Fisher was showcased as a pure exemplar of a specific linguistic and esthetic strategy, his usually estranging and explosive allegorical narratives seemed curiously passive and inert.

Much of this had to do with the retrospective format’s innate tendency to historicize, to explain later works in terms of their seminal forebears, while simultaneously recoding the latter in light of the former. The result was a contrived homogeneity of purpose that rounded off most of the contradictory jagged edges of Fisher’s ongoing discourse. Thus, in the diptych Desert Malevich, 1978, a photograph of a desert landscape inscribed with a stenciled text paying homage to the “rhythmic pulse” of nature is juxtaposed with a Suprematist-like abstraction of the same scene, similarly etched with Kasimir Malevich’s self-aggrandizing description of his own heroic ascent to the heights of the nonobjective. In this context, Fisher’s critique of humanity’s tendency to elevate its arbitrary mapping of nature into sublime transcendence is itself an equally problematic structural legend for interpreting much of the work that follows.

Viewed in this light, the cast-fiberglass pumpkins of Pumpkin Field, 1986, which have a fragmented photo-realist image painted onto them that only coalesces into a single image when seen from a particular position, can be interpreted as a deconstruction of mimetic visual codes, a revelation of cognition as a manufactured cultural experience. What this reading seems partly to suppress, however, is Fisher’s own willing complicity in the production, as well as disclosure, of this deceit. The provocation of his work, which the predominantly post-structuralist theoretical premise of the exhibition tended to downplay, lies in this very act of allegorical reconstruction; for example, the apparent semantic impasse between some cut-out paper birds, a phototext featuring a camper van, and an extract from one of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy cartoons in 84 Sparrows, 1979. By entering into the spaces between signs and drawing the subsequent metonymic connections, the viewer actively participates in linguistic meaning-production. However, this complicity shifts from the connotative to the denotative level in direct proportion to the exhibition’s ability to contextualize the work within that overall framework of the artist’s oeuvre.

In attempting to find some kind of viable synthesis between Fisher’s down-home Texas vernacular, the flâneur-like textual idioms of Ed Ruscha, and the dialectical materialism of conceptual veterans such as Douglas Huebler, John Baldessari, and Joseph Kosuth, the exhibition tended to smooth over the dynamic structural antinomies and paradoxes in Fisher’s works in favor of a safely distanced theoretical rationale. As a result, one became more aware of reading Fisher through the ideological binoculars of middle-period Roland Barthes than evaluating his work as simple meaning-production, with all the quirky, baroque materialism that such a reading implies.

Colin Gardner