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by Ilka Scobie
Janet Fish, Feb. 9-Mar. 11, 2000, at D.C. Moore, 724 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019.
"You know, beauty happens sometimes, and if so, I'm going to go with it."
-- Janet Fish
Janet Fish's paint-loaded brush touches canvas with the unswerving sensitivity of flesh feeling solid volume, be that the silken petal of a peony or the cool plastic of crumpled saran wrap. Long celebrated as one of the artists who re-energized American realism, Fish now gives us an exhibition of 17 oil paintings that share an exquisite exuberance in both color and composition.
Fish cites her grandfather, Clark Vooheers, an impressionist painter, as an artistic inspiration. Her family moved to Bermuda, as part of an expatriate art colony, and her mother is a sculptor. Fish attended Bermuda High School, went on to Smith and then Yale for her MFA. Her particularly illustrious class included Chuck Close, Rackstraw Downes, Nancy Graves and Brice Marden. Asked about New Haven memories, Fish cites then-instructor Alex Katz as "a breath of New York air." She also recalls, "When we were at school, Chuck Close was painting abstract. Everyone's work changed when they left."
Although often grouped with the Photo Realists, Fish maintains, "I'm not a Photo Realist. It's not that I'm against Photo Realism. People don't pay attention to what you're really doing. They just want a word." But people paid immediate attention to Fish's early and much acclaimed renderings of reflective surfaces, like the 1972 painting Three Glass Jars.
Her current fascination with plastic wrap bears the same luminous imprint as previous glass imagery. From Alexis captures red cellophane glamorized in a dazzling manner. The quirky inclusion of an obsidian pitcher is striped with abstract undulations.
Fish's art reflects her life, which is divided between a Soho loft and a Vermont farmhouse. Connections with her compositions are one of total and organic involvement, from the blooms picked from her garden in Peonies or the backyard pot of overtipped Asters. A passionate collector, Fish always includes autobiographical elements in her work, like Flowers for Charles, which portrays a bouquet given to her companion, painter Charles Parness, on a table with some of his belongings: a vintage tie, eyeglasses and a faceted Depression pitcher.
The centerpiece of the show is the large and intricately detailed Balloons, which the artist says "wasn't a real event. I made it up." She continues, "I was itching to do something like this, so big and difficult." The panoramic scene depicts an American dream, from cavorting kids to a volleyball game in the background. Party goods, flying mylar balloons and a layer cake are balanced by an apple tree that the artist says she "put in, took out and put back in again." Fish's genius is her ability to make complexity look effortless. Balloons' ambitions succeed in creating a monumental painting suffused with the light pleasures of a summer afternoon.
A tangle of silky weeds picked by the artist on way to her studio highlights an autumnal palette in Milkweed. Fish admits, "It was pretty tricky trying to paint milkweed," and sought inspiration in "old paintings of fur that were painted so beautifully." She replaced an actual gray porch with a swath of bilious green, like a field of dry grass. Fish, who says she is interested in the environment of a painting, evokes fall harvest, a bounty of walnuts cascading from a lattice work basket, and a sugar maple branch, crimson leaves just beginning to curl.
Despite their pastoral subject matter, these paintings display amazing strength, vitality and aggression. The painter Robert Kushner, in the catalogue essay, defines Fish as "a consummate contemporary painter." Her brilliant brushstrokes and dazzling composition never falters. Fish's alchemy of pure observation mixed with pure feeling creates a graceful vision of our world.
ILKA SCOBIE is a Native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.