New York

Eric Fischl

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

In lieu of the typical essay, the catalogue for Eric Fischl’s show includes a short assembly of notes by the artist, banal jottings presented as a poem and titled “India In My imagination.” In this phrase lies the problem with the exhibition, for India is not a fictitious place, and, in any case, the artist’s imagination is none too active here.

Fischl’s stock in trade has always been the tense narratives suggested by the poses of his figures and a sense of light that, at its best, can be remarkably effective. Neither is in evidence in this new series of paintings depicting his travels to the subcontinent, and, in their absence, the flavor of Orientalism is overwhelming. Given the sordid history of Western projections of fantasies of exoticism and inscrutability onto very real Eastern lives, one can’t help but wonder what we have done to deserve such a shameless display of imperialistic kitsch.

Presumably Fischl felt estranged from Indian ways of life and wanted to convey some of the unfamiliarity of its various gestural codes and manners. But his narrative skills have always relied on an intimate knowledge of the mores inherent in the scenes he portrays. This familiarity came easily when his subjects were comfortable white folk at home or at play in one or another resort, but here this firsthand savvy is missing; indeed, this is much of the pictures’ point. But, in its absence, none of the psychological suggestions upon which Fischl’s work depends is possible. In most of these paintings the figures simply stare out at the viewer (in fact at the photographer, since the works are refigurings of snapshots), and they look as if they might have been English actors in brown makeup, posed clumsily in front of sets. The women, in particular, seem to have little or nothing to do or say: two of them dance, one simply stands, and the fourth is seen from the rear as she ascends, fully veiled, the stairs of a temple. There is no subtext, only staginess, which in this case amounts to little more than a kind of contemporary chinoiserie.

Moreover, Fischl’s experiences in India seem to have stymied his painterly skills. The figures are crudely sketched, as if they were stock forms rather than unique subjects. The colors are flat browns and reds meant to evoke India, but they are too blunt and toneless to do so. The light is equally unremarkable, apparently sourceless, and decidedly unsubtle. In the absence of even these pictorial pleasures, this whole show, ill-conceived and then badly executed, seems almost thoughtless.

James Lewis

#image 1#