ERIC FISCHL’S MOCK TABOOS OF DAILY LIFE
It’s sultry at the beach. The antiseptic vacation rental overlooks the coast highway and a strand pebbled with swimmers and sunbathers. Despite the exposed view, a young woman stands naked on the balcony wearing only sandals and carrying a tote bag. Two dogs regard her attentively, and she seems to be saying, “You take good care of the place while I’m away.”
The next thing you know, an adolescent pair are on the balcony. The girl has dropped her bikini and the boy, clad only in a black T-shirt, touches her shyly. Both are graphically portrayed in a state of sexual excitement. The funny thing is that the kids have the same coloring as the dogs: one dark, one red-haired. It is as if they transformed themselves into kids when the mistress left the house. What’s going on here--magic or everyday rites of pubescence?
What is actually going on is a painting called “Dog Days” by Eric Fischl. It is on view with about 20 other works at the Whitney Museum until May 11. They constitute the first in-depth examination of a 38-year-old artist who has become one of the most talked-about members of the Neo-Expressionist generation.
Unlike others of his ilk, Fischl does not spur controversy over whether he can really paint. It is generally conceded that he can, even though he paints a world that seems to be made up of slept-in sheets and flesh that hangs lazily around bones like a kid lolling on a mall. What keeps people wondering about Fischl is his subject matter.
He deals in intimations of the forbidden--masturbation, incest, pederasty, interracial sex, fetishism, bestiality and necrophilia. Everything is soaked in an aura of languorous dread and potential violence. Probably no artist since Max Beckmann has so strongly evoked these lethal taboos. But Beckmann called them up as heroically scaled aspects of tragic Jungian mythology. Fischl confronts us with them as suburban banalities, fag-end cliches of pedestrian Freudianism.
Fischl’s “narrator"--so to speak--is an adolescent guy, who brings to mind Holden Caulfield of “Catcher in the Rye.” He is perceptive and sensitive but fundamentally amoral. He accepts everything with an apparently profound wisdom that is really only the callowest kind of naivete. You can almost hear Caulfield telling us about Fischl’s pictures.
“Mom went away again. She asked Mrs. Blaine next door to, you know, keep an eye on me. Well, I was sort of, you know, messing around with myself in the plastic wading pool in the backyard. She told me to come in and there she was undressed in the bedroom and I laid on the bed and talked to her and felt sort of funny but then she started writhing around in this kind of corny way. First I thought I was suffocating or something but I realized that basically she was grossing me out so while she was wiggling around I slipped $20 out of her purse. She is such a phony she will never miss it.”
Essayist Jean Christophe Ammann writes about this pubescent point of view in the catalogue but he, like the other catalogue writers, tends to bead up on the surface of Fischl’s work like raindrops on a waxed car. They dribble off into the realm of the theoretical instead of dealing with the experience of works that have so many people chuckling and snorting with embarrassment at the Whitney. Well, who can blame them? It isn’t easy to have to relive those giddy, guilt-saturated rites of passage we all went through with such exquisite pain.
But Holden Caulfield is Fischl’s mouthpiece and straw man. These paintings do more than reminisce on neurotic nostalgia. Fischl, the adult, unleashes a Pandora’s box full of sexual goblins and calls forth a complex panoply of artistic and literary allusions to add another dimension to the work. Fischl makes some people think of Manet because both artists deal in shock.
Significantly, however, Manet was cool and Fischl is not. Fischl is more like great 19th-Century activist Romantics who meant their paintings as sensational social documents condemning ills of the time. Fischl is like the Gericault of “The Raft of the Medusa” and the Delacroix of “The Massacre at Scio,” both of which could be read as either heartfelt social protest or artistic grandstanding.
Fischl’s “The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog” calls forth “Medusa,” not to mention Winslow Homer’s “Gulf Stream,” Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and the general shade of Joseph Conrad. Fischl takes their collective vision of heroism and tragedy and replaces it with a load of hare-brained hedonists evidently working up to a bored weekend orgy that may be interrupted by bad weather. Fischl seems to feel that if their ineptitude and venality cause them to drown, tough luck.
“A Visit to the Island” is an enigmatic diptych half devoted to naked white yuppies en flagrante and half to a group of black people doing something ambiguous but serious as if they might be boat people trying to rescue survivors of a wreck.
Fischl begins to emerge as a Romantic Moralist. His adolescent surrogate symbolizes the shallowness of this culture. Blacks appear frequently. They can be seen as symbolizing tantalizing bourgeois fears of exotic sex. It is just as likely that they stand for the classic “Noble Savage,” in touch with the forces of nature, since they also appear in the paintings as primitive sculpture. Fischl’s dog motif compounds comment on confusion. The dog, classic symbol of faithfulness and man’s intuitive guide to right action, is overshaded with a role in his perversity.
By repetition, Fischl’s theme is the white’s loss of primitive wisdom, his inability to deal seriously with the profundity and the magic of life’s basic acts. In “Barbeque,” he shows a boy using charcoal lighter fluid to blow a big flame like a fire-eater. Dad is cooking at the portable grill. Mom and sis are naked in the pool. They are so far from understanding the boy’s attempt to impress them that they just laugh. They will wonder why he is in a bad mood for the rest of the evening.
Fischl is part classic Romantic, passionate and in love with sensation for its own sake. But he waffles. Detesting the commonplace, he paints it with a raw dryness that plays up its vulgarity, its lack of passion and finesse. Fischl condemns the quotidian by adopting its cliches and its equivocation. He forces the viewer to have guilty thoughts by staging scenes like “Daddy’s Girl,” where a man embraces his girl child while both are in the buff. We dislike ourselves for thinking what we are forced to think. He likes putting us in no-win situations. In a scene titled “Saviour Mother, Save Your Love(r),” we are faced with the old double-bind dilemma of deciding whether to save one’s drowning parent or sweetheart. Fischl mocks the whole situation by setting it in a swimming pool where everybody could be easily rescued.
Once we have gotten past the suffocated shock of Fischl’s themes and his trick of implicating us in them, we realize he makes rather boring pictures. They are full of unresolved spaces that contribute to their air of anxiety but leave them visually sloppy and difficult to remember. They betray a prissy fear of warm weather and exotic climes and a macho phobia against ease and sensuality. Fischl rarely locks down on a lush bit of painting, daring neither the unruffled composure of Manet nor the pyrotechnical pageantry of Delacroix.
Fischl’s art borders on satire. He hints at the self-righteous smugness of American Social Realists like Jack Levine. It’s an attitude that won’t come clean about itself. It could be a hypocritical gloss on an imagination as cauterizingly satanic as that of the late Jean Genet. It could be a heated up, exhibitionistic kind of sentimentality. One thing is clear: For an art given to moralizing, this one has a surprising amount of nastiness and a disturbing lack of compassion.
Some of Fischl’s large-scale works are on display through Saturday at Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 619 N. Almont Drive, and through Tuesday at Larry Gagosian Gallery, 510 N. Robertson Blvd.