Clear Notions of the Abstract

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Michelle Fierro has a lovely way of talking about art. A 29-year-old abstractionist at the start of what promises to be an interesting career, she speaks with knowledge and affection about artists as disparate as Cy Twombly, Philip Guston and Pieter Bruegel.

“I love the congestion and density of Bruegel’s images,” she enthuses during an interview at the Burnett Miller Gallery, where her first local solo show is on view through Oct. 19. “Bruegel put a disgusting spin on aspects of daily life that’s fascinating, and his paintings never cease to amaze me. And Twombly--his ability to take a line to canvas and create energy is just awe-inspiring!

“Guston I love for the way he reduced symbols down to caricatures. He worked that way in a period when it was considered obscene to do such a thing, yet he created a vocabulary of crude forms and constructed little scenes with them that are quite brilliant.”


Fierro’s own work is earning similar superlatives. Arriving at what could be described as a mature style in the remarkably short period of six years, Fierro reports there haven’t been any dramatic shifts in her work since she began painting in 1990. “It’s been more of a slow, steady deepening,” she says.

Monochromatic fields punctuated with clusters of clotted colors, Fierro’s paintings are at once comical and curiously beautiful. At a distance, her minimal compositions are evocative of work by artists Twombly and Richard Tuttle; move in for a close-up, however, and the densest areas of her canvases blossom into chaotic topographical maps composed of crudely affixed scraps of paper, hair, plastic and paint, which she scavenges from the floors of her friends’ studios. Several ideas and influences converge in Fierro’s work; its most significant forebear, however, is Abstract Expressionism.

Many things have transpired in painting over the past 50 years--Pop, Photo Realism, Pattern painting, various postmodern potpourris. However, Abstract Expressionism, which saw its glory days in the ‘50s, continues to cast a substantial shadow over the medium. It stands to reason that nearly half a century later, the movement would be pretty well exhausted. Fierro asserts, however, that while it would be nearly impossible to pull off a purely gestural painting in 1996, abstraction continues to be a fertile field.

“For me, Abstract Expressionism represented a freeing up of the surface, and my work obviously comes out of that school; however, what I do is quote that style. You couldn’t make a straight gestural painting right now because it wouldn’t be of its time and would be painful to look at.”

Born and raised in Whittier, the second in a family of three children, Fierro had a standard Southern California childhood spiced up with a dollop of culture.

“I’ve always visited museums and my parents exposed me to art,” she recalls. “[Joan] Miro was probably the first artist I ever looked at and I still love his work. I have relatives in Spain, and I first saw his work when I visited them in 1987. I was absolutely blown away.”


Enrolling at Cal State Fullerton in 1988 as an American studies major, Fierro soon drifted over to the art department, where she began taking photography classes taught by Eileen Cowin. “The pictures I was taking were similar to my paintings in that they tended to be austere and empty--I guess I like space,” she laughs.

“From the start, I knew I wanted more than just an image, so I started adding things to them and painting on the images. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I wanted more control than you can have with straight photography, so a year later I started painting.”

Paying for her schooling with a series of odd jobs that included waitressing, catering and managing a youth hostel, Fierro graduated from Fullerton in 1992 and transferred to the Claremont Graduate School. Studying with John Millei and Michael Brewster, among others, Fierro recalls that “the forms were much bigger in my early work and they tended to dominate the canvas, but that’s no longer the case--now the forms are suspended in space.

“The paintings come together in a variety of ways,” she continues. “I’m interested in points of intersection and the places where disparate forms meet, and I often use photographs when I paint for ideas about composition. And contrary to what you might think, I don’t always do the ground first. Sometimes I’ll begin a painting by affixing a form to the canvas, and my paintings often develop around the notion of covering things up.

“The lumps of paint are solidified before I use them and I nail them to the surface. They’re actually pretty easy to put together, but it’s impossible to rework them--I’d destroy the canvas if I tried to reposition one of the lumps. I get blobs of paint from friends who are also painters--they let me scrape up the stuff that’s left on the floor or on their palette--and for me that adds a storytelling aspect to the work. At the moment, I’m getting paint from four artists, each of whom favors different colors, so I always know who gave what to my work.

“Painting is all about temperament and I’ve always been sort of sloppy,” insists the impeccably groomed artist, who’s dressed today in a crisp white shirt and spotless beige trousers. “It doesn’t concern me that the paintings be beautiful, and though of course it’s all in the eye of the beholder, they sometimes look really grotesque to me. My sense of humor certainly comes to play in them, and the idea of landscape is an element as well. I think my work is feminine, but I don’t know if I’d identify myself as a feminist because I’m not sure what that means. As a woman painter, I’m aware I’m battling a lot of history, but I think that’s changing and that women artists are taken seriously now in a way they weren’t a few decades ago.”

As for the larger question of whether painting is going through a period of marginalization, Fierro says, “there are some people who are cynical about painting, but I pay no attention to that. I seek it out and it’s not hard to find--New York, for instance, puts painting on a pedestal and always has.”

After earning a master of fine arts degree from Claremont last year, Fierro moved to Hollywood, where she lives in a two-room apartment--”one room for living and one room for painting,” she laughs. “One of the hardest things about the life of an artist is the factthat you don’t go to work. Being home all day having to deal with yourself can get a little weird, so I go out and do lots of stuff. I see tons of movies, often with my brother, who’s a screenwriter, and I’m always reading.” (She just finished a collection of short stories by critic/curator John Yau, and is currently immersed in John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charlie.”)

Fierro is represented by Bennett Roberts, one of a new breed of dealers who, rather than maintain exhibition spaces, place their artists in one-time-only shows at galleries run by other dealers. This approach is working well for Fierro, who sells just about everything she produces and already has representation in New York (at the Jack Tilton Gallery, which shares representation of Fierro with Roberts in Manhattan).

“I’ve been fortunate to meet Bennett, because the way he works has opened up a huge base of collectors,” says Fierro. “I’m quite surprised to be able to make a living with my work because that was the last thing on my mind when I started painting. I was just thrilled to finally find a way of working that satisfied me.”


MICHELLE FIERRO, Burnett Miller Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., B2, Santa Monica. Dates: Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends Oct. 19. Phone: (310) 315-9961.