How often do you think about dying? I think about it every day. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t long for it. But I’m aware of it. It’s a universal truth that unites us, one that we endlessly contemplate, ruminate on, hold to the light like Hamlet with poor Yorick’s skull. We can’t stop thinking about death because we don’t know what comes next. It’s hard to accept that the answer may be nothing.
What to do in the face of this void? For many the answer is to leave a mark—scrawl “I was here” somewhere on the plane of earthly existence. That’s what Tony Fitzpatrick means to do in “Lunch Drawings,” his newest exhibition at Firecat Projects and his first show of original work in Chicago since 2010.
Fitzpatrick isn’t the type of sensitive soul you imagine meditating on death. He’s less Hamlet than Falstaff, charging to center stage all bravado and bluster. Fitzpatrick is a character in a movie about the kind of Chicago that exists only in movies: He wears hats the way that gentlemen used to. He doesn’t compliment you on your nice eyes; he tells you you’ve got great lamps. He calls the mayor impolitic names. When the car is too warm, he yells that it’s hotter than a nun’s ass on Good Friday, and then, as if to clarify, says it’s hotter than a monkey’s nut sack.
But beneath all of this is a poet’s heart. Fitzpatrick is essentially a softy, in love with the things that make life worth living: his family, his friends, and his dog, Chooch. In recent years his drawings had begun to manifest a kind of serenity, what he describes as an “autumnal” quality. The palette was muted and simple—lots of white, black, and red—and the imagery was gentle, maybe a little wistful: horses, castles, smiling raven-haired women, and memories of a fast-food restaurant where he ate as a child. At their inception, “Lunch Drawings” were the work of an artist who had settled into a certain stage of life, one where you don’t mind admitting that there’s likely more behind you than there is ahead.
But then Fitzpatrick learned of the death of Lou Reed—a musician whose words had wound their way to Fitzpatrick on a Catholic school playground decades before, offering reassurance: There’s a whole wild world out here. You’ll get there. Years later, Reed saw one of Fitzpatrick’s drawings on a wall and sought him out. People say you should never meet your heroes; you’ll only be disappointed. But in the ensuing years of his friendship with Reed, Fitzpatrick never once was.
After Reed’s death, the “Lunch Drawings” turned into a kind of eulogy, a celebration of what the musician had given the world. Fitzpatrick created a series of work centered around the vivid, poignantly human imagery of Reed’s music, all the freaks and misfits he celebrated. In remembering his friend, Fitzpatrick seems to have rediscovered a piece of himself: the artist who revels in the bawdy and irreverent, the schoolkid who likes to cut class and piss off the nuns. Vitality, for Fitzpatrick, means a little bit of vulgarity. In “Lunch Drawings,” the viewer can see him remember that. The colors change, the mood shifts. His autumnal musings give way to brash declarations of otherness.
This kind of juxtaposition is something you’d usually see in a retrospective, reflecting a slow, tectonic change. With “Lunch Drawings,” it happened in a matter of weeks. Tony Fitzpatrick is not a man who is going to go softly into any good night. To the bells tolling in the distance, he says, Yeah yeah yeah, I hear you. Now fuck off.