Captured Through Accumulation: The Reworked Portraits of Anthony Fisher
Anthony Fisher: Portraits at Galerie Mourlot
16 East 79th Street, between Fifth and Madison avenues,
New York City, (212) 288-8808
Since he graduated from Yale in 1986, Anthony Fisher has been painting still life and the human figure. His portraits actually have an element of still life about them, for while drawings are done from live models, paintings are made from either casts taken from these models or from plaster busts. His newest series of monumental, seething and tragic portraits are among his strongest to date.
For his second solo show in New York, the Boston-based artist has included a range of drawings that allow for an expanded, behind the scenes view of the project. The five paintings of larger-than-life size heads are all centrally positioned frontal views, often in a neutral space. They are as much drawn as they are painted. Thickly layered paint is equally scraped off as painted on, with admixtures of colors that instantly link the work to notable predecessors such as Soutine, Giacometti, Picasso, and Bacon, as well as with such contemporary painters as Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, John Walker, and Cecily Brown.
Some of the drawings are done simply in charcoal, others combine Conté crayon with pencil or ink pen with acrylic wash. Some, almost frugal in their treatment, are studies for the paintings, while others, such as ones of the artist’s mother, exude an elegiac wistfulness. All are articulate working drawings. Unlike much contemporary drawing created through the accumulation of small, illustrative lines, as complete works rather than studies, Fisher’s fluid, gestural lines combine with wide side-of-the-crayon marks that instantly inflate the page, giving volume, mass and breath to the heads. Here we can follow the artist’s working hand and witness a searching mind probing the form while exploring the position, expression, and mood of the head. The drawings, which can stand on their own, are also referential to the paintings.
The representation of a specific individual dates back to Greek and Roman times. In the twentieth century, practical and social functions, along with likeness and a sense of reality, slowly gave way to more varied interpretations for painted portraits. However, as Erwin Panofsky noted, contemporary portraiture still “seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity.” At first glance one might not feel they have much at all in common with Fisher’s isolated and intensely raw-appearing heads. Yet in short time, the eye begins to perceive traces drawn in—on or through the scraped underlayers—that flesh out these somewhat carrion-like heads. We begin to read Fisher’s entire process as a way to capture, through accumulation, an aspect of time, emotion and the feeling that some part of being human must always remain elusive.
Fisher’s paintings are meta-portraits inspired initially by a white plaster copy of a pivotal polychrome bust made in the fifteenth century by Donatello, from which he worked for nearly a year, simply to determine in paint the expression and position of the form. Eventually Fisher made a plaster cast of his own longtime model. After hundreds of drawings and dozens upon dozens of sessions with each of the canvases—always with a near compulsive adding on and wiping out process — Fisher built his response to the bust in front of him Like Giacometti, also an obsessive reworker of images, Fisher is fascinated with the ineffable mysteries and existential challenges of the human figure and psyche. Several of his works are titled “Interior.”
Except for swaths of intense cerulean blue in some paintings, the color here is somber, harsh, and earthy. These are not fleshy paintings even though the paint is very, very juicy—especially on the faces, where it accumulates into confectionary-like moments of illusion. Fisher isn’t looking at flesh, but rather at plaster, while recalling the skin of his sitters and marble sculptures -both of which can have a particular earthly chill.
In returning day after day to the portrait underway, Fisher registers the minute differences of his own attitude, his own state of being. Through a determined and relentless pursuit of an ultimately impossible to seize reality, the work evokes much of the internal questioning that we all have in common. His deft manipulation of color, light, and space imbues these portraits with vivid sensations that yield a high degree of pictorial poetry. It’s a remarkable achievement considering these paintings begin as a response to a stark, inert plaster cast of a bust.