Eric Fischl at the San Jose Museum of Art

Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting

October 27, 2012 through May 12, 2013

San Jose Museum of Art

Art Review by Ingrid M. Reeve

Eric Fischl’s exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art, Dive Deep, might be divided into two parts: Eric Fischl as painter and Eric Fischl as narrator. The most intriguing paintings seamlessly weave both into one. The show kicks off with a wonderful piece: part collage, part sketch, part painting, Untitled (Study for Year of the Drowned Dog) reveals Fischl’s voracious appetite for painting.

fischl study
Untitled (study for Year of the
Drowned Dog), 1983
Oil on paper
28 x 24 inches
Courtesy of the artist

The work not only succeeds at revealing more about the artist’s creative process (an objective of the show), it is also a glimpse into the artist himself circa 1980. One can imagine the day, the artist and his process. The event starts with an artist at the beach. Suddenly a scene that must be captured in painting begins to unfold in front of him. Time is limited. He grabs a piece of paper and quickly sketches figures. He hastily adds a loose page for more figures. That’s not enough, so he adds another for the sea and another. He works on pages that have the words “advertising top right” abruptly printed on the surface giving the viewer the impression that he was willing to paint on anything -any which way -so long as he could get what he could see into paint on paper.

If you’re a painter, you’re a painter. It really is  a particular relationship that you have to the process, to the materials, to the way your organize the information, to the way you organize the world. It’s the way you see and express your feelings through the way you see. –Eric Fischl, 2012

But the story of a painter is not the only one this painting tells. One could conjure narratives about suburbia, the beach, family vacations, and the normal and the weird in all of the above. The ugliness of these early paintings references something more; the anxiety in each brush stroke is appropriate for his (revolutionary in the 1980’s)  intention to depict the darker underbelly of his suburban world. Together the paint and the images tell a tale.

2. Fischl, Barbeque, 1982
Barbeque, 1982
Oil on canvas
65 x 100 inches
Collection of Steve Martin

Fischl’s process is further revealed in large transparent drawings of individual characters and spaces collaged to create compositions, and, subsequently, narratives.  The beauty of these collaged compositions is that they create narratives that are almost feasible. Discordant, but not impossible, they might have happened- once.  The process translates well into his finished work, which also boasts some of the immediacy of his painted “sketches” as seen in Barbeque (1982) making his early work consistently successful from one medium to another.

But what makes a narrative painting? The way the image is composed or the way it is painted? In the case of contemporary work, particularly that of Eric Fischl, I’d have to argue it’s the way the painting is painted, which brings us to the second part of the exhibit- enter photoshop. Fischl, being the master artist that he is, knows himself well; a wall statement- a quote from Fischl- reads, “the paintings became richer… having disconnected some aspect of the anxiety of the search from it.” That sums up the second part of the show; the paintings became richer- the surface: lush, the brush strokes: clear and direct. The compositions are well photographed and well photoshopped. These paintings, developed through the lens of a camera, are richer, but the narrative, which it is implied is paramount to the photoshopped paintings, is singular.  The recurring narrative I see and hear and feel is that of a photographer taking pictures. I see actors, hired strangers and close friends of the artist, and a camera man. Narrative: Photo Shoot.

fischl photo
Living Room, Scene #4
from the series “Krefeld Project”,
24 x 28 inches
Hall Collection
fischl living room
Krefeld Project; Living Room, Scene
#4, 2002
Oil on Linen
63 ½ x 92 inches
Courtesy of the Artist

The show starts to feel like a retrospective highlighting the life of an artist from young and anxious painter to comfortable and successful artist.  A part of me wants to say, “Eric Fischl: lose the camera; get hungry again!” But I look around at all the artists I know, and I see “hungry” metaphorically and literally, so I realize that Fischl’s success brought him comfort, which removed the anxiety from his life the way the camera removed it from his process. After all, an artist’s heart and mind can’t be too far removed from his/her process.

The process informs the viewer of who the artist is, and Dive Deep does dive astonishingly deep into revealing “how an artist thinks.” A show that successfully reveals more about an artist is a gem for artists and art lovers alike.  The show is up until May 12, 2013. Go see it!