New York

Tony Fitzpatrick

Bridgewater/Lustberg Gallery

Self-taught, Chicago-based artist Tony Fitzpatrick began showing in New York’s East Village during the mid ’80s. His small, slate chalkboards, obsessively painted with quirky, cartoonish imagery fit in well there, standing out as raw and original in a sea of second-generation Kenny Scharfs. Fitzpatrick is an auteur of quintessentially American images: his is an often violent, but always astute look at the darker side of American life, rendered with tattoo-parlor frankness and unmistakably Catholic drama and pathos.

This show offered a range of etchings on chine collé which, although selected from several different series and inspired by the artist’s neo-Beat poems, form a coherent body of work. The individual compositions foreground iconic figures from Fitzpatrick’s pantheon of antiheroes—fallen athletes, muscular tigers, virile bulls, devils, insects, and monsters—each surrounded by a host of comparatively dwarfed stick figures, halos, bleeding hearts, odd buildings, and hints of barren landscape. In Homage to Big Cat, 1991, a tough-looking tiger wearing boxing gloves stands poised on his haunches, towering over a miniature, carnivallike setting. Eight Count, 1992, pictures a bloodied Mike Tyson, knocked to one knee and awaiting the final count. Boxing is more than a novelty for Fitzpatrick—it’s a metaphor not only for survival in the general sense, but perhaps also for the challenge of making art. While these images are infused with a healthy dose of humor, they are not parodies but, rather, emblems of masculinity put to the test.

Fitzpatrick’s motley crew of characters are overdetermined icons, calmly distilled from his earlier portraits of murderers, porn stars, and other freaks. Here, animals are endowed with dubious human qualities, and thereby transformed into infamous, eulogized folk heroes. In The Sad Bull, 1992, a powerful bull stands beneath a twisted crown of thorns, shedding a torrent of tears. Fitzpatrick transforms his people into quasi-insects as in Fly Man, 1992, or prancing devils, as in the humorous Little Hot Diablo, 1992. Personal memories, such as the scarred and carefully labeled hand in Jail Diary #1, 1992, are on par with the collective memories portrayed in the ghostly Shoeless Joe, 1992. By contrast, the huge, dark bird surveying a savage wasteland in The Plague Crow, 1992, seems like a bleak pronouncement on the present, and the eerie menagerie of characters in The Coming of Locusts, 1992, despite a certain nostalgic quality, is darkly prophetic. These haunting rebuses constitute a mature, evolved statement—the refinement of a vision.

Over the years, Fitzpatrick has been categorized as an “outsider” artist. While the raw, self-taught look of his imagery invites it, this categorization misses the mark. Fitzpatrick has not only positioned himself on the inside, but specifically as a rebel within—a purveyor of an idiosyncratic visual language that has little to do with current trends.

Jenifer P. Borum