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by Kathy Battista
You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the dolls.1
Oh is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just 20,000 people standing in a field.
And I don’t quite understand just what this feeling is.
But that’s okay ‘cause we’re all sorted out for E’s and wizz.
And tell me when the spaceship lands
‘cause all this has just got to mean something.2
The post-war conception of the American female was largely tied to the domestic. Household goods and conveniences, as advertised by attractive women on television, were a sign of affluence, health and happiness. One’s status in society was largely tied to what they owned, and women were the ideal consumers. This paradigm of the perfect housewife was deconstructed in feminist ideology of the 1970s. Writers such as Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Kate Millett analyzed the role of women with literature that became widely available and influential. Gender, previously considered a fixed entity, became subject to scrutiny that resulted in an expanded, pluralistic view of male and female. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Parveen Adams, Judith Butler and Laura Mulvey, increasingly viewed gender as a conditioned construction of one’s identity, incorporating physical, political and ideological constructs. This burgeoning interest in identity paved the way for tangential disciplines—cultural studies, postmodernism, postcolonial studies, and queer theory—that used feminist methodology, as witnessed in writers as diverse as Stuart Hall, Hal Foster and Paul Gilroy.
If one considers pharmaceuticals as another consumer commodity, this strikes an especially poignant note. How have women been targeted by the advertising industry? How many pills do we consume daily or annually? How much faith do we have in medicine and pharmacology as panaceas for our myriad of ills? The post-war cliché of ‘mother’s little helpers’ and the iconic ‘Valley of the Dolls’ were nods to the increasing commodification of the pharmaceutical industry, and in particular its use by women. Drugs may be seen as another consumer convenience, alongside the microwave, dishwasher or vacuum cleaner.
The women’s movement also resulted in various effects on art practice: a rise in work related to themes such as the domestic, women’s experience, and female biological source imagery; an interest in exposing the inequality among gender; and perhaps most importantly, questions around the notion of identity. How do we form or measure identity? To what extent is identity implicit or is it socialized through society? The first wave of feminist artwork witnessed in the 1970s US made manifest these questions. For example Judy Chicago’s flower paintings drew inspiration from the biological aspects of womanhood.
A subsequent generation of artists, whose work consists of a combination of installation, sculpture and painting, took a more opaque approach to feminist inquiry. Material became secondary to concept. Beverly Fishman’s work is situated within this trajectory. While educated at Philadelphia and Yale, Fishman was inspired and supported by prominent artists concerned with the feminist movement including Ree Morton, Judy Pfaff, and Elizabeth Murray. Other artists interested in the investigation of the human body including Lynda Benglis, Laurie Anderson, Francis Bacon and Eva Hesse, were also important references.
Fishman’s work has long exhibited an interest in the human body, for example, N.L.B.W. #1–156, 1997–1998 and P.I.L.L. # 1–189, 1998. These take the form of wall-based installations of individual elements comprised of photo-based collage, acrylic and resin on wood. The idiosyncratic shapes of each component resemble cell-like structures while the constellation formed by the cluster of forms mimics the view from a microscope. This internalized view of the human body does not refer to a specific person, but a universal human condition. Fishman used Xeroxes of human cell structures, and the titles suggest scientific, coded information. The fear that every person feels regarding what lurks within our body is made manifest here in the palette of the work. Saturated hues, including red, yellow, turquoise, purple and black suggesting the visceral, dominate this period of her work. In addition, the cellular conditions of replication and division, echoed in the use of the Xerox as medium, suggest the possibility for both deterioration and renewal. This binary presents a cyclical reading of birth and death as inevitable fates embodied in abstract terms.
Indeed the tension between representation and abstraction is an important element of Fishman’s work, and is reflected in the
obvious nod to the handspun in her practice. Each formal constituent bears witness to its making. In this sense one sees her work alongside artists like Hesse, Ross Bleckner and Philip Taafe. Hesse’s forms, at times anthropomorphic, were post-minimal abstract shapes; yet, the presence of the artist’s hand is found throughout her oeuvre. The same can be said of Bleckner or Taafe, who relied on pattern, but whose physical implication in the work is present in the surface of the painting. Fishman’s work finds its context in these contemporaries who rejected the use of sterile minimalist fabrication, but took from their predecessors the interest in the repetition of forms and patterns.
The oscillation between abstraction and figuration is seen in Fishman’s current series of work. Her large-scale paintings, both vertical and horizontal in format, have become more mechanistic in character: what appear to be dot matrixes, hard-edged stripes and waving linear forms that become almost topographical in places. They find their inspiration in DNA and QR codes, as well as medical measuring devices including EKGs and EEGs. The circular forms are derived from pills, both pharmaceutical and recreational. The paintings, while done by hand, bear relationship to the computer, which is used to sample and morph patterns and scientific imagery that is sourced on the Internet. Take for example Fishman’s Dark Kandyland 2010, a large-scale acrylic and enamel painting on polished steel. Vertical in format, the painting may be considered in two distinct sections: the top half, in which circular, ovoid and other pill-shaped forms float atop a pattern composed of black dots on the unpainted polished stainless steel background. Here the pills seem to levitate and hover above the pattern. The lower segment of the painting, with a composition of horizontal and vertical lines, as well as what looks like an electrocardiograph and genetic code, contrasts with the circular forms above. One might describe the painting in terms of Platonic order, with the mind existing literally above the bodily. The top half also represents the ‘cause’ and the bottom the effect: it’s the pills, prescribed or otherwise, that would make the heart race or the body relax. And the straight lines call to mind the medical term of ‘flatlining’ when a patient is ebbing away from life. Thus, Fishman’s metonymic painting embodies this notion of cause and effect in its dichotomy.
Horizontal diptych and tripartite works such as Dividose: Flour r.b.b.y, (2009), System Overload (2009-2010) and Barcode.helix.eeg (2010) also divide into discrete segments. Similar to horizon lines, these paintings are split into thirds or halves and suggest landscapes of graphic information. Here the pills spill into the lower section, while barcodes and DNA helixes compete with stripes and patterns to delirious effects. The artist is masterful in her ability to strike a delicate balance between the webs of lines, networks of color and various shapes and layers. At times the paintings resemble the innards of a computer, which represents the primary medium through which we view the body today, for example with EKG patterns, sound waves, and genetic codes. While Fishman’s paintings give the impression of ‘high technology’ with an almost futuristic sheen deriving from the polished steel, upon closer inspection one can see the marks of the artist’s hand. Fishman wants the viewer to see the imperfections, which may be read as a reflection of the human condition. This harks back to the idea of identity, with each painting symbolic of a composite of individuals rather than a mechanized template. However, the idea of the construction of identity through medical, scientific and pharmaceutical terms, may be read as a continuation of the feminist interest in the formation of self, both in physical and psychological terms.
The scale of these new paintings, which are slightly larger than life-sized, is an important aspect of the work. At eighty- four inches high, in the vertical works—Acid Kandyland #1 and #2 (2010), White Kandyland (2009), and Dark Kandyland (2010)—the viewer can partially see her reflection in the works due to the highly polished stainless steel. The affect varies according to each work, as the denser compositions render just a shadow of the viewer while looser compositions
result in a sharper image. They do not serve as mirrors, rather like vestiges of the viewer projected on to the painting, reflecting the nebulous identity of the pills and charts. Thus, the artist implicates us all within her work, much like Op Art’s dizzying effects. The unsettling experience of viewing a Bridget Riley or Victor Vasarely comes to mind here.
The palette of this new body of work draws largely upon day-glo and fluorescent colors. This produces several effects. First, the paintings are never static. The colors, combined with the dynamic juxtaposition of forms and patterns, suggest so much movement that they take on a hallucinatory nature. For example the horizontal diptych Untitled, (Kandyland Series), 2010 is comprised of bright pinks, orange, citrus green and magenta. These colors, which may be read as reflecting the use of neon in signage, suggest the urban condition. City living demands two different lives, one’s daytime and nighttime personas, the latter of which may require recreational drugs to sustain.
The use of drugs in art is not a new concept. There is an entire literature based on opiate experiences and one need only think of Dali or 1960s psychedelia to understand how drugs have been used to foster the creative impulse. In more recent years Fred Tomaselli’s paintings contain pills and marijuana leaves and Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets use pills as found objects. Tomaselli’s layering of substances, both legal and illegal, within layers of resin, uses the actual objects themselves to create networks. Hirst’s pharmaceuticals, while also concerned with the consumer driven drug industry, retain a sterile, distant feeling. Fishman’s interest in pills, in contrast to her colleagues above, is linked to how we measure identity, to the state of our minds and bodies, and to the psychological and physical effects rendered by these small but omnipotent objects. She embraces pharmaceuticals as a form of representation, both of the body and mind, as well as our urban, over programmed lives. Despite the promise that modern medicine holds, we are all still mortal beings, frustrated, unable to sleep, anxious or unwell.
Another difference between Fishman and those artists referenced above is the importance of the handcraft in her work. This is perhaps most evident in another body of work presented in ‘Future Natural’. This series consists of smaller wall-based sculptures that use phosphorescent pigment to make them glow in the dark. The pills referenced here, as in the paintings described above, are derived from actual drugs. Pharmaceuticals such as Valium®, Klonopin®, Haldol® and Fosamax® sit alongside various incarnations of the recreational Ecstasy. The latter has famously taken various forms, including iconic imprints such as the heart, skull, smiley face, and now even Homer Simpson. The irony in Fishman’s work is that the pills begin to blur together. For example, the moose imprinted on a pill for diabetes (Prandin®) could easily be read as an Ecstasy tablet. Perhaps the icon most indicative of this is the Superman logo—an ‘S’ in an upside down triangle—which has appeared on both Ecstasy and Parkinson’s medication with very little difference in rendering. Here Fishman’s point is well taken—whatever one’s poison is, medical or recreational—the desired effects are the same and their marketing is frighteningly similar.
The pills may be read as a critique of the seduction, especially of women, of advertising in today’s culture. Here both medical and homemade science seduces the consumer. One takes a pill, which is in its original solid state. This then dissolves and becomes
vaporous. The latter state is reflected in the glowing backgrounds. Here again Fishman invokes signage and the language of graphic design in her work.
The pill series, while sculptural, are consistent with Fishman’s earlier work. They employ modernist tactics in that although the shapes of the pills are derived from the actual items found in the world, each pill is individual, hand cast from a wooden mold. No two are identical as Fishman varies them by using different colors, both on the surface and the phosphorescent pigment
underneath, which makes them glow. As you encounter the pills the viewer can see small inconsistencies and marks from the casting process. The artist relishes in these small anomalies, which subvert the mechanical processes by which real pharmaceuticals are made. The pills are also modular. While one can stand alone as a sculptural work, they can also be grouped in the same way that her earlier cellular installations or the latest polished steel paintings can work
together in dialogue.
When seen as a holistic entity ‘Future Natural’ reflects several of Fishman’s abiding themes. Her interest in the history of painting and sculpture as fetishized objects is seen in the materials and palettes of the paintings as well as the pills. They call to mind references as diverse as Richter’s mirror paintings and early Warhol drawings. The artist’s interest in science, which is
always concerned with reimaging our body through the development of new technology, as a seductive force in all our lives, relates to the theme of how we consume and are consumed by advertising. And finally, Fishman’s early training under feminist and postminimalist artists is reflected in this current work. How is one’s identity, in particular female identity, transposed and interpreted through science? And how is science in turn influencing or changing our identity? The future seems anything but natural here.