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Jane Fisher: Narrative Paintings/1986-1999
October 15 - November 6, 1999
Tues.-Sat.: 10-5:30 PM

Lyons Wier Gallery
300 West Superior
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Telephone: 312/ 654-0600

"Wait until the kids get bored with yelling and splashing.
Then, beside the pool, it is crystalline. Soak in the sun.
Listen to the town. You have never heard of the town before:
this is important. Otherwise, there are expectations,
and a plan. This is not to say the town need be small.
America conceals immense things. Here are thousands of
busy souls as untangent to you as individual rocks on the moon."

John Updike, "How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time," in PROBLEMS and Other Stories (Alfred A.Knopf: 1979)

Willard Pool Study #2, 1999
Gouache on Paper
11" x 15"
© Jane Fisher

The world within "Narrative Paintings/1986-1999" by Jane Fisher lives by those words; the paintings embody the lives within such a world. It is a world of John Updike -- of lives lived waiting for something to happen, which rarely does; or of Joseph Heller's Something Happened -- where the malaise evades words. Jane Fisher's narrative paintings embrace that world -- a very real America.

The Willard Pool (1999: Oil on linen: 50"x70") was chosen as the exhibition card and it serves as an informative introduction to the paintings. It forms part of an ensemble of three oils and two gouache studies focusing on two men at leisure in an outdoor swimming pool, and a conspicuous feature of this series is the close space of the canvas image. There is nothing to suggest a world existing beyond the canvas edge, and within the image neither acknowledges the other's presence. Leisure resides within the individual. Even in a work such as Jason and Colin at the Willard Pool (1999: Oil on panel: 9"x11"), the man at left faces frontally, while to the right his companion floats face down in the pool. The shimmering water which is the image's matrix unifies a canvas field, but isolates a human archipelago. The adept rendering of the water, ripples and reflections subtly ringing about the human forms and the canvas centerpoint, creates a movement and visual interest which strongly underscores the withdrawn quietude of the men. And, in Jason Floating (1999:Oil: 16"x24"), the subject floats face up with eyes closed, which calls to mind the great vogue which sensory deprivation enjoyed in recent years. "...Thousands of busy souls as untangent as... individual rocks on the moon." Updike's observation.

The Willard Pool, 1999
Oil on Linen
50" x 70"
© Jane Fisher

Janet Fisher's observation of middle-class America is consistent in her art. Her palette is clean and naturalistic: neither too bright to draw attention away from the content, and to the fact of painting; nor too subdued as to preclude realistic acceptance. She employs a certain range which suits her insight and its subject matter: her palette corresponds to everyday circumstance. In the Willard Pool set, Fisher shows skill in using foreshortening of the figures, particularly as a surrogate for an unseen perspective. The two gouache studies, Willard Pool Study No.1 (11.25"x15.25") and Willard Pool Study No.2 (11.25"x15.25"), indicate the attention she has given to developing the work.

In other works, such as Stockton Street Stairwell (Oil on panel: 64"x64"), a sharp, almost photographic perspective intensifies the personal distance between the characters. Here, a flight of steps at right leads up toward the viewer, and a descending flight points left. The exacting perspective of this stair landing converges toward the panel center. The figures, however, move away from the canvas center and each other. The young man going up the right-hand stairs remains aware of the person he has passed by. But there is no sign that either has spoken, or otherwise overtly regarded the other.

One aspect of American life which visitors often remark upon is how little acknowledgement of surrounding 'others' there is; how infrequent is casual conversation even among familiar, but unknown faces. And again, Updike is a kindred chronicler of this perpetual evasion. When, in "How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time," the motel desk clerk at end passes the story narrator and smiles, the latter thinks: "This slightly spoils it. She knows you. You know her. When innocence ends, plans must be made. First, sleep. Then early in the morning, when the traffic is spotty and the sun is feeble in the east, move on." And that might well be the implication underlying Stockton Street Stairwell. The general effect is to suggest that the presence of others is more confining or restrictive than the narrow space of the stairwell. The two men pass silently; and Fisher plays psychological containment against visual enclosure.

In Steve and Mike at the Holiday Lodge, (1998: Oil: 54"x75"), Fisher alters her approach, but, again, the perspective, palette and poses are directed toward examining personal distance through her subjects. In this oil, the two men sit at table with beers. The minimal selection of motel decor -- TV, overhead lamp, drapes -- is softer in edge; and the plain drapery hangs bland. That line and flatness predominate, despite the modeling of form and shadow for dimensionality, concentrates attention on the men. In Steve and Mike at the Holiday Lodge, Jane Fisher portrays people in an separateness with which they are comfortable: they are at home with it; there, as on the road, in motels, on narrow stairways. In this sense, her content differs greatly from an artist such as Edward Hopper. It is not an isolation of workspace or public venues, and it is not loneliness. The artist has given a study in which, as voiced by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, "...separation from places, persons, beliefs -- produces the psychic state of nature where reserve and timidity are the prevailing dispositions. We are social solitaries." But Fisher's people are content in that.

Zen Gorilla, 1999
Oil on Panel
16" x 24"
© Jane Fisher

One of the paintings at Lyons Wier Gallery which seems to depart somewhat from this direction is Oregon Motel (Oil: 1998: 45"x32"), and its departure is not so much one of content as aesthetic treatment. A young woman, dressed in panties and socks, sleeps in a small room. In Oregon Motel, the handling of light and aerial perspective -- the manner in which depth is achieved by varied saturations -- creates a soft, very gentle atmosphere, one which almost seems akin to Vermeer. The effect is warmer in atmosphere, but that may be linked in part to the image of sleep. Jason's Room (Oil: 1997: 66"x56") portrays a single male in bed, a full chicken on a plate beside him, and framed on either side by hotel lamps styled as onion-flowers. This work is much closer to canvases such as Steve and Mike at the Holiday Lodge, or Sunday in Napu (Oil: 1999: 12"x18").

Zen Gorilla (Oil: 1999: 16"x24") is a recent work. The two men at left recall the common home snapshot, while a third, foremost at right, appears to regard the viewer with mistrust. In Zen Gorilla, the mens' hands are to themselves: there is little to suggest close familiarity or fellowship other than propinquity. And Fisher's skill in composition and spacial perception elsewhere makes it clear that the setting and poses are premeditated to be thus.

In "Narrative Paintings/1986-1999," Jane Fisher penetrates into a common reality of American life, and does so with artistic skill and social insight. There is much to discover there, as writers such as Updike and Heller have found. Much of the world within her paintings bears a kinship to the America those writers knew. They yield a world of close distances -- accepted, self-constructed and comfortable. They are human portrays of this time and place. But as John Updike noted: "If all is not well with his world, the rooster never admits it. ... He never moderates his joy, though I am gradually growing deafer to it. That must be the difference between soulless creatures and human beings: creatures find every dawn as remarkable as all the ones previous, whereas the soul grows calluses." (John Updike, "Daughter, Last Glimpses of," in PROBLEMS and Other Stories).

"Narrative Paintings/1986-1999," by Jane Fisher will continue at Lyons Wier Gallery until November 15, 1999. It is surely worth the visit.

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

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