Plus Ultra Gallery
637 West 27th street
New York, N.Y. 10001
April 27 to June 3, 2006
Joe Fig studies the spaces artists work in — usually limited to their worktables, the floor underneath and immediately surrounding the worktable, a few pieces of furniture and accessories such as garbage cans, ladders, stools, and lighting equipment, and their painting supplies including brushes, tubes and silos of paint, and paint rags — along with their thoughts about making art and what it means to be an artist. This exhibition features a number of models of well-known painters’ work areas displayed behind clear plastic boxes and recordings of interviews Fig did with the artists. The artists whose studios he replicates in miniature include Chuck Close, Will Cotton, Eric Fischl and April Gornik, Philip Pearlstein, and Joan Snyder.
Joe Fig’s naturalism and attention to detail are astounding. Like a diorama at the Natural History Museum these sculptures convey a wealth of information. Although, similarly, they have an educational value, the main audience for these sculptures consists of people who want to join the art world elite or are already part of it, and assorted art scribes. The real artists’ studios will not look exactly like they do in these sculptures ever again. Joe Fig captures what a specific environment looks like during one moment in time.
These sculptures represent isolated fragments of whole spaces. Only part of a room is included in the simulation and except for the one large sculpture (“April and Eric: August 10, 2004”) the figure of the artist is missing, and their absence is palpable. They feel more like stages, the foci of action, rather than a living space. It is unnerving how the viewer not only imagines the missing artist going about his or her business, we also feel the ghostly presence of Joe Fig measuring and recording all the details that will be worked into his sculptures. It is ironic that the titles of each of these sculptures includes a specific date (one assumes it is the day Mr. Fig interviewed the artist and photographed parts of their studio) because the viewer steps out of time and place while peering at them. We feel as if we are learning something essential about the creative process, something that goes beyond individual achievement.
In order to create these sculptures Joe Fig needed to employ his sophisticated understanding of perspective, color and spatial relationships, and his ability to fabricate a variety of different forms using a variety of different materials. He recreates the exact coloration of each painter’s palette and the notion that a painter’s palette is often more interesting than the finished paintings they make comes to mind. It is also really interesting to note how a painter’s use of cups/tins and paint rags tells you a lot about the physical act of painting, how the painter revises and destroys and works the materials about sloppily or meticulously. It was also interesting to note traces of the artists’ blending techniques, how they create their signature colors.
These replicas are absorbing because of our interest in the lives of artists. Fig’s art exists in realms usually traversed by historians and critics. Fig’s art takes to an extreme the notion that we do not experience a painter (or visual artist) as painter, but only experience one painter in another painter, or even into another painter (this concept appears in Harold Bloom’s seminal work “The Anxiety of Influence”). These sculptures can also be considered deconstructions of the daimon or genius of his painter subject. The Greek roots, incidentally, of the word “diorama” are dia (through) and horama (to see).
These sculptures undermine the typical strategies of art critics, who tend to make laundry lists of artistic influences when they are writing about an individual artist. Critics and historians isolate and connect the style, symbolic vocabulary, and formal qualities of the work being scrutinized to those of other artists. Art historians and biographers do research and try to recreate the lives and creations of artists using words. Fig completely immerses himself in the art of the other, almost to the point of self-annihilation.
The audio track that accompanies these miniatures consists of Joe Fig interviewing the artist associated with the miniaturized work tables we peer at. Fig asked each artist more or less the same questions. He did improvise a few additional questions depending on conversational contingencies. Joe Fig’s naturalism, his keen eye for detail, makes the artists more human, tangible. Artists describe their daily routines and the banality of day to day life, the unmysterious daily grind and repetitions involved in making great art, and challenge the myth of the artist, dispel the aura of the artist who has historical import or a Curriculum Vitae a mile long. Of course certain statements also make it clear that the artist being interviewed is an aberration, amazingly lucky, and that art students shouldn’t expect the same fate.
Fig photographs artists’ studios so that he can simulate them in a radically different scale and simultaneously allows the viewer to experience the artist’s spoken words. Rather than using written words like the historian or critic, Fig has invented a new way of understanding the creative process. He combines a meticulous model of a fragment of the artist’s studio, an exacting study of the corporeal, and the disembodied recorded speech of the artist (and Fig), a more cerebral and ethereal component. Fig’s art is traditional in the sense that he immerses himself in other artist’s work in order to learn from them, but it is ambiguous because the concept of originality, the line between Fig’s identity and the subjects he lovingly explores is blurred. Is studying the habitats and work habits of established artists an art form in itself? Is this selflessness a form of creativity or a quasi-scientific practice? At a certain level, Fig’s focusing on museum practices and models of reality is a product of his times.
There is a hint of oedipal struggle in these works. Such questions as, “What advice would you give a young artist that is just starting out?” hint at Fig’s own struggle to become a successful artist. One wonders if Fig is sneaking through the door marked private, the door that leads to art world success, by glomming onto successful artists. His intentions certainly seem genuine. Fig’s attempt to figure out how artists he admires go about their business comes across as genuine, free of ulterior motives (but perhaps not free of an “anxiety of indebtedness”) because it reveals over and over again that art making is an ongoing process that requires discipline and an undying curiosity.
These sculptures are not simply heartfelt tributes. In Robert Sheckley’s novel “Mindswap” he describes the etiology of a particular syndrome, an “obsessive projective narcissism” which occurs on occasion when two people swap minds and I think this description relates to Joe Fig’s creative process: “[T]he dynamics of the syndrome involve a displaced self-love. That is to say, the sufferer falls in love with another, but not as other. Rather, he falls in love with the Other as Himself. He projects himself into the persona of the Other, identifying himself with that Other in all ways, and repudiating his actual self. And, should he be able to possess that Other, through Mindswap or allied means, then that Other becomes himself, for whom he then feels a perfectly normal self-love.”
Building meticulous models of artist’s worktables helped Fig gain a deeper understanding of the artists and gave viewers an intimate experience they would otherwise never have had. Somehow these sculptures provide a much more satisfying and tactile experience than a documentary ever could. Fig reminds us that painting is a very physical process no matter how cerebral or conceptual the artist professes to be.