Vernon Fisher remembers Easter-egg hunts. “When I was a kid, I was never any good at finding eggs. All the other kids would run around finding Easter eggs right and left till their baskets practically ran over, while I never found one unless I tripped over it or something. It never occurred to me that the eggs weren’t just scattered at random. It wasn’t until later I learned that they were always hidden next to objects, like fence posts or water hydrants.”
He tells this story because it reminds him of his artistic approach today. “I can never find an answer to a question. As sure as I veer toward one answer, the other answer starts calling to me.” As a result Fisher’s paintings and constructions never resolve into simple entities; a variety of discordant elements point in different directions.
White Hunter is a sculpture of a human skeleton with 14 copper stencils attached, each of a single word–“hunter,” “Nile,” “water,” “elephant.” From the title, the careful viewer will easily decipher the work’s “code”–that each of the words also makes sense when preceded by the word “white.” But not every aspect of the piece is so carefully planned: the stencils were attached to the skeleton not to give significance to specific bones or body parts but simply “where they would fit.”
An encounter with this work “moves your mind around a lot,” hopes Fisher, a Texas native who now lives in Fort Worth. The mixture of the solvable and unsolvable perhaps recalls his somewhat mystified childhood: “My parents would tell jokes and I wouldn’t see why they were funny. Later I remember learning what made jokes funny.” This was another experience of “not knowing how things are supposed to go.”
One day Fisher “was watching a television magician and he was a great actor. He would start to do a trick and the trick would break down in the middle, and we would see the artifice and it was really funny.” The magician played these intentional breakdowns for laughs, “and while we were dying laughing at all his fake tricks he’d pull something out of a hat and it’s a real trick. So it’s like playing with the idea of being a magician/not a magician. And I was thinking of how similar that was to the way I work. It’s almost like I give you real money and I tell you it’s counterfeit–just the opposite of what you’d expect.”
Thoughts of art and magic led to Evidence of Houdini’s Return, a large piece of blackboard slate filled with wildly diverse things. Blurry, apparently erased white marks make it seem like “a blackboard that’s been used by who knows how many strangers before I started putting my stuff on.” The marks are actually oil paint, despite the real pieces of chalk resting on an attached shelf. The shelf also holds three-dimensional disks that look a bit like Mickey Mouse ears, and the same disks are painted in an image on the blackboard.
Throughout his work Fisher juxtaposes contradictory symbolic systems. In Painting in the Pacific, a small color painting of the sea sits in the middle of a painted map, itself copied from a book (Fisher even paints the fold between the book’s pages). The painted sea presents water in “an experiential way”; the map presents the sea “diagrammatically”; and the real truth is that all systems of representation are artificial ways of understanding the world–“toxic,” says Fisher, if taken as verities by complacent viewers.
Reality, for Fisher, is unknowable. By juxtaposing several sign systems at once he obtains a “more honest picture, because you’re using one as an antidote to another. It’s not that the systems are not true, it’s that they’re all more or less ineffective. And so it’s important not to confuse that ineffective system with any kind of reality that we can apprehend. So what you do is you use one system to detoxify another.”
Vernon Fisher’s new works are on view through October 8 at both I Space, 230 W. Superior (587-9976), and Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, 325 W. Huron (944-1990). Viewing hours at I Space are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday; Zolla/Lieberman Gallery is open 10 to 5:30 Tuesday through Saturday.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.