Vernon Fisher And The Clutter Of A Mind At Work

Painting by Vernon Fisher "Shadow of the Night"

The first time I saw the work of Vernon Fisher I was instantly captivated. He is a masterful storyteller and painter who employs deadpan humor in his investigations into perception and consciousness.

Combining the extraordinary and the mundane, Fisher looks at how people make sense of the world – or should I say, don’t make sense. For in Fisher’s work the failure to communicate, the failure to perceive, are core issues.

In a catalog about Fisher’s work produced by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art the authors use this quote by the writer Annie Dillard to explain Fisher’s methodology: “The use of narrative collage, then, enables a writer to recreate, if he wishes, a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange. It may emphasize the particulate nature of everything. We experience a world unhinged. Nothing temporal, spatial, perceptual, social, or moral is fixed.”

Fisher started out as an abstract painter. Although he received success with this work he found it unsatisfying. He would paint, but at the end of the day he let himself play with all the scraps of canvas found in his studio. This playing involved making small books to which he began adding text. He discovered that he had no interest in creating the “real art” found in his paintings, preferring the “play” at the end of his day. Eventually he abandoned the abstract paintings and began to produced photo-realistic works that combined text and image.

Vernon Fisher painting that combines photorealism with text

The piece above, Andy’s Apartment, is an example of Fisher’s early work. The photorealistic painting is overlaid with a condensed story. He constructed it by designing the text in plastic letters which he then sanded until the letters were cut out of the surface of the painting. In all the work of this type there was only a loose connection between the image and the text but it was essential to Fisher that both remained readable. The text had a dual function. On the one hand it was used to tell a story, but at the same time it served as an abstract over-all surface pattern that harkened back to the formal concerns found in abstract expressionism.

"Stick-Chart Navigation" a wall installation by artist Vernon Fisher that combines text, image and object

Since the 1980s Fisher has moved back and forth between painting and installation art. He will often combine an object, an illusionistic rendering and a map-like form. In Stick-Chart Navigation, a piece about mapping that is seen above, there is a small wooden form on the left, a photo-realistic painting of a small floating pier in a body of water with overlaid text, and a bamboo grid and shell construction. The bamboo grid is based on navigational devices that are used in the Marshall Islands to chart islands and ocean currents. The story in the center panel reads:

I have a friend who is having a problem with her boyfriend. He is always disappearing without warning. He’ll go down to the store for a pack of cigarettes and not return for days or even weeks. When he gets back, there are always several hundred more miles on the car, and all the radio select-o-buttons have been changed. Although she regards this activity as being highly questionable, she doesn’t want to appear suspicious or distrustful, so she doesn’t know exactly what to do. Lately, she has been spending most of her time driving around the country looking for the one location where all the select-o-buttons match up with local frequencies.

Here’s another installation piece by Fisher.

"Show and Tell" a wall installation by artist Vernon Fisher that combines text, image and object

On the left is a photo-realistic painting of two men proudly displaying a large fish they’ve caught. In the center is a chalkboard covered in paint spatters that partially hide the word “snow.” On the far right is a cut out figure of Aunt Fritzi, a character in the old comic book series Nancy. Below is the story that is part of the painted panel on the left:

One little girl never brought anything to sharing time. Other children might bring an authentic Indian headdress acquired on a vacation in Arizona, or a Civil War sword handed down from Great Granddad, but whenever the teacher asked: ‘Dori, do you have anything to share with us today?’ she only stared at the top of her desk and shook her head firmly from side to side.

Then one day, long after her turn had mercifully disappeared, Dori abruptly left her seat and walked to the front of the class. With everyone’s startled attention she began: ‘Today on the way to school I found something that I want to share.’ She held her arm stiffly out in front of her and began slowly dropping tiny pieces of shredded Kleenex. ‘See?’ she said. ‘Snow.

This installation is called “Show and Tell.” Some connections between the elements reveal themselves as the viewer reads the text. Others take longer to become evident. Some are part of the narrative while others are formal design associations. Both the girl in the story and the two men with the fish partake in “showing and telling.” The paint spatters on the chalkboard are snow-like in their form, as are the dots on Aunt Fritzi’s dress. The barely visible word snow is as disconnected from real snow as the tissue paper flakes in the written story. And yes, this poor girl just can’t figure out how to communicate in a world she clearly doesn’t understand.

Vernon Fisher art installation "Basutoland" that uses text, neon and an umbrella

I can’t end this post without showing some of the blackboard paintings for which Fisher is known. Several use text but many rely solely on a disjointed narrative that emerges as viewers attempt to find the connections between the individual elements. In explaining this work Fisher states “The blackboard lends itself to my interest in the clutter that accompanies the mind at work. Seemingly random and disordered notations, for instance, are not unexpected on a blackboard because we’re used to the notion that blackboards are where ideas are worked out and are often shared with others.”

Vernon Fisher painting "Private Africa"

Vernon Fisher painting that resembles a blackboard

Vernon Fisher painting that resembles a blackboard

Interviewing Fisher for a catalog produced by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary art Madeleine Grynsztejn tells Fisher “I see your entire oeuvre as a metaphor for consciousness.” His response? “Or unconsciousness. I think consciousness is a very small part of our interaction with the world. My work is an allegory of our interactions with the stuff we call the world, it is a metaphor for our finding our way. I see myself more as an observer than anything else, I just see all this stuff and point to it. I am like a comedian who simply walks on stage and reads a newspaper. You don’t have to make it funny or absurd: it already is.”

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