Painting as House and Home
Terry R. Myers
For more than twenty years, Julia Fish has traveled a very particular path in her work across the material and conceptual space that (only?) exists between abstraction and representation, negotiating — even interrogating — the interstices between the natural and what Mondrian once called “the new plastic.” In a 1919 dialogue between “A Singer” and “A Painter” that was written completely by Mondrian himself, despite his desire to explain why it had become necessary to move away from “the mere representation of natural appearances” to that which was fully “plastic” and non-objective (e.g. color and line), he revealed an even larger goal: “Relationship is what I have always sought, and that is what all painting seeks to express.” Fish’s most recent set of paintings — the ten part Living Rooms presented in this exhibition — not only more directly initiates a dynamic relationship with the plastic, formal aspects of Mondrian’s practice than ever before in her work (an affiliation informed as well by the mediating role of the work of Roy Lichtenstein, to which I will return below), but also re-establishes provocative connections to her own earlier paintings in which critical concerns of resemblance and materiality were much harder to pin down so precisely.
Fish’s decision to focus upon the specifics of her immediate physical surroundings does not limit the scope of her work, and neither does it come out of nowhere: even at its most “abstract” her work has always maintained a tangible “here-ness” that resists any attempt to disassociate it from the everyday or anything that could be claimed as personal. In 1997, Fish turned her attention to the patterns and sequences of tiles in the entryway of her home, resulting in a body of work collectively called Entry that continued into 2001. In these paintings, two considerable aspects of her work were intensified: the commitment to look closely at what was actually there, and the subsequent sense of displacement that took place by default given the complicated transfer from floor to canvas, a shift that was amplified by her production of a contrasting group of paintings which depicted the inverse “shadow” images of the earlier, “faithful” works. It can be argued that the escalation of such seemingly contrary impulses — to see what is there and to picture it somewhere else — has led to a breakthrough in her most recent work in terms of its ability to open up into even wider territory. The fact that these recent paintings at first glance look relatively minimal makes the overall expansiveness of her development even more remarkable.
In her notes for Living Rooms, Fish states her goal as follows: “I have investigated various ways to paint and inscribe inhabited experience: to picture what it means to live within and move through rooms that open onto each other, occupied in close, proximate terms.” It is in this depiction of living within and moving through that Fish has opened up the parameters of her paintings (and drawings) to give them what I want to call breathing room. By grounding the ten distinct floor plans of specific rooms of her second-floor living space in a dry, dense yet surprisingly fleshy color field that unifies the entire set of ten canvases, Fish makes the formal structures of the domestic space in which she lives inextricable from a kind of body that maintains its compositional composure despite being in deliberate parts. Moreover, by incorporating in her work a kind of symbolic language to indicate such things as sources of light and particular directions of movement, Fish has extended her pictorial vocabulary into the kind of emblematic language that all of us use to locate where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
The seriousness and the specificity of Fish’s outlook have always been reflected in the articulate statements that she has written about her work. With that said, her description of Living Rooms speaks for itself: “Each canvas articulates a specific interior room configuration and the threshold space(s) to any adjoining room or passageway, oriented as either north- or south-facing; each is subtitled by the spatial orientation and indications of movement: for example, SouthWest – One, with lights, action.” Presented in one-to-seven scale, each of the floor plans have been tellingly “built” in layers of suggestive yet elusive green-but-not-green paint, areas of living space that seamlessly become part of the “skin” of each of the individual paintings. As well, Fish’s decision to anchor each plan to either the upper or lower edge of each canvas in order to differentiate south from north helps to define the set as an architecturally unified “body” of work, even if it seems counter-intuitive to identify “up” as “south” — for her the (global) switch is the result of living in a house that is “overwhelmed by light from the south windows.” Such a corporeal and structural grounding allows for a surprisingly diverse sense of reorientation in the entire set: some of the floor plans seem to contract from a substantial base of pink while others nearly engulf the entire area of the canvas, giving the entire set as well a tremendous range of movement. The material conditions of Fish’s work have always provided a tangible place from which a transformative sense of space could emerge. What makes Living Rooms unique is its capacity for embedding a very specific, “plastic” type of language into the rest of the picture, generating literal points of connection (like batteries) for a transfer of energy.
The various “plus,” “minus,” and L- or T-shaped forms that are set into the floor plans of the ten paintings indicate various features of Fish’s daily experience of the actual rooms — in sequence from above: an artificial light source, the movement across a threshold, activity within the room or at the threshold, and natural light coming in from a window. All of these signs appear as if lit from within, set into the painting almost like jewels, points that not only attract our attention, but also direct our eyes around the two-dimensional space of the painting. Clearly related to Mondrian’s “plus-and-minus” paintings and drawings from 1913–17, Fish’s marks are distinct from his in that they are not striving to separate themselves from nature. Rather, they provide a meaningful point of entry for the reintegration of nature (“lights, action”) into the stubbornly figurative and representational aspects of abstraction itself. To that end (a point of resolution, by the way, that is prevalent in the work of younger painters today who are following Fish’s long-standing example), to me Fish’s Living Rooms most surprisingly have a conceptual and material connection to Lichtenstein’s 1990s series of large-scale paintings of interiors. Both artists bring us into a picture of a home by way of a resolute yet conditional set of graphic forms that add up to a solid yet rearrangeable articulation of architectural, social space. Lichtenstein also investigated the domestic in his earlier “mirror” paintings in which his malleable graphic language seamlessly fuses together an object and its capacity for reflection, creating a special kind of space that exists only within painting itself, and Fish accomplishes exactly this kind of fully occupied “lived space” in her Living Rooms, a set of paintings that are self-contained — even compressed — yet more than expansive enough to be both house and home for painting and for us.
Published on the occasion of the 2005 exhibition, Julia Fish, Living Rooms, Anthony Grant, Inc., New York, NY