New York

Eric Fischl

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Eric Fischl’s new work demonstrates that he still has the power to provoke. His India paintings represented a falling away from his earlier perversity—or rather a stylization of it that caused it to lose all its uncanniness—but now, returning to the American scene where he is obviously at home, he has recovered his intuitive sense of devilishness. Sexuality is his theme, and it is more blatant than ever. These paintings reflect a particularly American confusion of identity—for America is the land in which we let it all hang out, but to no avail. This, in fact, is Fischl’s real theme—the theme that was latent all along and is now almost in focus. For the issue in The Empress of Sorrow (all works 1992) is not “her” cross-dressing, but that “she” doesn’t really have any secure sense of self. It comes only from her dressing up and playacting—from acting out the hidden femininity of the macho male. The theatrical flair with which the Kabuki dancer assumes the role suggests that this femininity is repressed to the point of denial: he knows his own identity as little as “she” knows hers.

The real narrative in all Fischl’s paintings is a repressed narrative: the lack of identity hidden behind the gross display of nakedness. His figures are unselfconscious because they have no self to be conscious of. They strut as though sexually liberated, but they are all hollow men and women. The head, visible between the legs of the figure of uncertain gender in What There is Between You and Me, has more identity and self-possession, for all its voyeuristic curiosity and lascivious-ness, than any of the blurred, virtually faceless figures. Implicitly that of the spectator, the head is “central” because the work is subliminally about the viewer’s unconscious.

The exhibitionistic display of the naked body the old woman’s in the witty Why the French Fear Americans and the group-grope in Brother and Sister and Nick’s Picnic—at once hides and compensates for the absence of self, reflecting Fischl’s tacit narrative of this gesture’s lack of significance, which is subtly brought to the fore by the ironic photo-sleaze textures of the work. As is made evident by the ingenious blurriness of the scene, for all their sexual blatancy and obsession with the body—American materialism at its most “intimate”—it is as if Fischl’s figures could not quite bring themselves into focus. The scene is sufficiently clear for us to get the general point, but it will never be clear enough to tell us who these people are or think they are, because, as their sexual indiscriminateness suggests, they’re just part of another anonymous crowd.

Perversity means the blurring of difference between the sexes and generations, which is what occurs frequently enough in Fischl’s pictures. His effort, in the vaguely Rodinesque sculpture of a man holding an infant to his breast, to “redeem” this obviation of difference by suggesting its “higher purpose,” falls short of the goal. It is a token acknowledgement of the possibilities of which feminism has made us conscious, but it betrays Fischl’s subtle articulation of his characters’ lack of inner substance—a lack that is revealed through the commentary of their conscience on their behavior. That is the devastating play within the play—the tragedy within the comedy—that is Fischl’s real contribution.

Donald Kuspit