An image of Donald Trump dressed as a clown is, like the President himself, not a subtle thing. It's not very difficult to interpret what neo-expressionist New York painter Eric Fischl thinks about the Donald and in that it's something of an outlier. Fischl's work is all about uncertainty, lack of connections, nameless dread, lack of fulfilment, and intimacy without desire.
The little girl looks at the black dress hanging up on the back of the door. Presumably her mummy's dress but where is mum? Is she in the other room? Is she at work? Has she gone? Has she died? Is that man even her dad and if not what's he doing in her bedroom? Fischl's work doesn't provide you with a narrative so human nature forces you to construct your own.
The beautiful, young, wealthy, and often naked people that sprawl out around sun drenched swimming pools in Pretzel and Clearing the Table seem to have an enviable lifestyle but they don't look particularly happy. They seem unable to emotionally relate to each other. The chubby man looks at his phone, the lady in the pool stares into space, and the waiter goes about his business of laying out bananas etc; with his mind, surely, on something else entirely.
Like Edward Hopper and David Lynch before him, Fischl travels out to suburbia and pokes at its underbelly, or, as protocol now dictates, its seedy underbelly. It's become a well travelled road and to create work making such observations runs the danger of looking rote or, worse still considering Fischl is based in New York City, patronising.
Clearing the Table (2018)
She and Her (2017)
The scale, the colour, and the complex and nuanced composition of his paintings means he manages to steer clear of such concerns. Adolescent sexuality and voyeurism have long been major themes in Fischl's work but for St.James's Skarstedt gallery's exhibition of his work from the last two years, Presence of an Absence, he seems to have moved towards more complicated adult relationships and interactions.
If the exterior scenes suggest awkward interactions, averted gazes, and people's lives falling through the spaces made by the gaps they leave in their communication then the interiors somehow ramp this up exponentially. The lady in The Appearance has the textbook 'appearance' of the idle, and bored, rich. She holds her glass of wine far from her mouth as if to signify she's only drinking to pass the time. A dog lies on her lap, an animal that really knows how to relax. A man reads from a piece of paper but it's impossible, from his lack of impression, to know if it's a phone bill, a suicide note, or instructions on how to set up a self-assembly divan. It's a painting that captures one of many moments in the long, and often undocumented lives, of us all. We can't know what it's about but we can surely recognise something of ourselves in it.
The Appearance (2018)
Last Look Mirror (2017)
Last Look Mirror, with its little homage (or is it a dig?) to Andy Warhol, shows two characters who, in true Fischl style, aren't making eye contact. They're going about their day to day business in their own little worlds never fully aware of what the other is thinking and waiting for those rare moments of genuine connection that feel so magical when they finally happen.
Even death can't guarantee them. In After the Funeral, easily my favourite of all the works in this compact yet bijou show, two mourners stare into space. One's face is obscured by cigarette smoke, the other's behind a funeral veil. They sit, seemingly, in silence as a shadow stretches out across the table. You feel for them and you know they feel for each other but you find yourself drawn, more than anything, to the masterful shadow. You can almost feel the warmth of the sun passing through the elongated silence. It's a shadow, and a painting, I'd like to think that Edward Hopper himself would've been proud of.
People often say the people sat alone in diners, hotel rooms, or public transport in Hopper's paintings look desperately lonely. I see Hopper's subjects as solitary, alone, but not necessarily lonely. The characters that populate the works of Eric Fischl are , more often than not, with other people yet their inability to communicate renders them far lonelier than those who sit by themselves. We all know you can feel lonely in a crowd. Fischl paints what that's like.
After the Funeral (2017)