New York

Vernon Fisher

Charles Cowles Gallery

It may look funny but in fact it’s far from it. Vernon Fisher’s oblique 2002–2003 homage to David’s Death of Marat, 1793, is an ingenious take on art’s tragic postmodern condition: a fragment of wood bearing a dismal Romantic skyscape, bracketed by black wall-mounted parentheses (and thus “under suspension,” as Edmund Husserl might say, but not “under erasure,” à la Derrida), and accompanied by a kitschy cutout illustration of a toppled paint can and spilled black paint that nods to the death of painting. An American Tragedy, 2005, which incorporates a still of Shelley Winters about to fall from a boat rowed by Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), a film based on Theodore Dreiser’s story of upward mobility, contributes to the mood of impending doom pervading this show of recent paintings.

Waterborne disaster is everywhere in Fisher’s paintings: Hope and Glory, 2005, depicts a faded gray sink juxtaposed with a space capsule’s ocean splashdown; S-s-swimmers, 2005, features a pool full of vigorous female competitors, and Raft (After Géricault), 2002, shows the victims of a contemporary shipwreck. Is Fisher commenting on an America that’s sinking, swimming for its life, or treading water?

Sociopolitical allegory aside, Fisher transforms black-and-white photographs into paintings, sometimes with more emphatic gestures than at other times, but always with an awareness of the peculiarities of the medium. Their appropriationist credentials are confirmed by the referencing of cartoon illustrations—the comic-strip character Nancy and a sailing ship—and above all by the enamel-coated cast polyurethane reliefs of dots and commas that accompany his images. The result is a strangely muted tour de force of innuendo—only Dead, 2005, a large painting based on a dictionary definition of the word, complete with usage examples of the kind utilized by Joseph Kosuth, makes Fisher’s Conceptual allegiance explicit. But there’s a difference: Kosuth dismissed painting, turning to language as his medium, while Fisher’s energetic handling suggests he enjoys painting—and representational painting at that.

Fisher takes a brave step, making neither simply Conceptual painting nor postmodern stylistic montage, but incorporating both into what seems to me to be a new kind of political art—one conveying not anger, but helplessness. Shelley Winters can do nothing about her fate, nor can the castaways on the raft. The swimmers don’t yet know the race’s outcome, and the space capsule looks pathetic in the vast ocean—just as the photographic fragments themselves look glumly isolated in Fisher’s compositions. Fisher subtly suggests the vulnerability behind America’s current gung-ho attitude, and in so doing has performed an aesthetic service for its citizens.

Donald Kuspit