Lynn L. Fischer:

Fragmentation of the Body

at ARC Gallery, through March 2

By Bonita McLaughlin

Back in high school when my lab partner and I dissected a cat in advanced biology, I was astonished to come upon a kidney. It was a gorgeous blue, crisscrossed by red and yellow veins. How strange, I thought, that something so beautiful lay hidden so far under the skin. And yet, like everything else inside the cat’s body (including her unborn kittens), it was also vaguely repulsive.

Like that kidney the wall-mounted ceramic sculptures of Rockford artist Lynn L. Fischer simultaneously attract and repel. Their textures and colors–everything from sooty blacks to crackled browns to creamy whites to waxy lavenders and pinks–are appealing, but their shapes are not. Bulbous sacs and lumpy tubes bulge, ooze, twist and turn back on themselves, sprout quirky little protuberances resembling belly buttons, nipples, penises, cervices. They’re awkward, which makes them a little bit funny, especially if you see them as independent beings complete in themselves. (While I was at the gallery a little girl pointed to one and told her friend, “That’s an upside-down duck!”)

But the sculptures’ valves and tubes and general resemblance to viscera suggest they may be fragments torn from larger wholes. No two of the small sculptures in the series titled “Private Parts”–shown in one group of 4 and another of 18–are alike. And while some strongly resemble organs, others resemble exterior body parts: one piece in the group of 18 consists of two round, pinkish breastlike shapes sporting black growths that could be nipples or tiny penises. Some pieces appear to be caught up in mysterious natural processes. Blobs of a yellowish substance emerge from the valves of a black, vaguely heart-shaped “creature”: Some sort of sap? Evidence of growth or decay? Sometimes playful, even silly, Fischer’s “Private Parts” allude to the body’s fragility and temporality.

Fischer, who received an MFA from Northern Illinois University in 1995, says in a statement about her sculptures that they’re “designed to be aggressive.” But in that respect the “Private Parts” don’t succeed. For one thing, they make little use of the space around them, clinging to the wall in an unthreatening, passive fashion. And some of Fischer’s color combinations–pale lilacs, turquoises, pinks–especially when combined with her somewhat goofy forms, are too pleasing to be truly aggressive. Recently I watched an eagle at the Washington, D.C., zoo hungrily rip a small animal to shreds. I won’t easily forget the jarring contrast between the bits of warm red flesh the bird casually dropped and the soft white snowflakes falling all around. In comparison to that riveting scene Fischer’s group of 18 “Private Parts” look almost genteel; they’re odd but not shocking enough to conjure up the violence that attends fragmentation and dissolution.

The smaller group of four “Private Parts,” however, is more resolutely unappealing. Their surfaces are covered with minute yellow cracks coursing through a dull brown that reminds you of–well, dried shit. Their shapes are a mix of inner and outer body parts: breasts, testicles, bladders, stomachs, colons. With their uncompromising ugliness and their suggestion of displaced organs (especially sexual ones), these “Private Parts” seem to be striving for a stronger emotional punch, but only one piece attains it: the last of the four, a heavy breastlike sac sprouting two limp “colons” at its sides, speaks convincingly of weariness and defeat.

Like the others, these four “Private Parts” don’t venture far from the wall; as sculptures go, they’re somewhat two-dimensional. Fischer’s three larger works, each about four feet high and suspended a foot or so from the wall on metal hooks, are more sculptural as well as more aggressive. The upper half of the one titled Processor #2 is a long curved “spine” sprouting pairs of “limbs” that look like overgrown vertebrae or truncated ribs; its lower half consists of a large sac ending in a small tube. Processor #4 has a similar sort of spine with a more pronounced, painful-looking twist. Like Processor #2 it ends in a large, distended sac, one side of which sports a small, folded-over tubular growth tucked against the sac like some kind of vestigial organ. Parts of the piece have a rough, crackled surface; here and there the reddish orange clay even seems about to flake off.

With their configurations of roughly textured biomorphic forms, Fischer’s “Processors” recall some of Louise Bourgeois’ nestlike hanging plaster sculptures of the early 60s. But whereas those ungainly creations seemed protective, providing shelter for the spirit, Fischer’s sculptures look flayed, evoking the fear of exposure, of being stripped to essentials, poised on the brink of disintegration. They touch upon that dread we carry around (mostly unconsciously)–the knowledge that at some moment we’re going to revert from a whole being to a mere jumble of meaningless parts, from an “I” to an “it.”

But because the “Processors” blur boundaries–between inner and outer, organs and bones, fragment and whole–they’re also somewhat puzzling: Are these viable beings or merely remains? What are we to make of the merging of the “spine” with the “stomach”? Or of the fact that the tops of the spines are ripped open and hollow, which makes them look more like flesh than bone?

Fischer clearly delights in unexpected fusions of inner and outer parts of the body. I wished, though, that she’d attempted to say more about fragmentation–of the self and of society–or about tensions between inner and outer realities. Despite their oddity and overall inventiveness, most of the “Private Parts” are rendered tame by their too agreeable colors and textures or by their unassertive use of space and gesture. Processor #2 and Processor #4 venture into more challenging territory, but then suffer from a frustrating vagueness. Fischer’s off to a good start, having crafted an intriguing vocabulary of forms. Now she needs to see what more those forms can express.