Stunningly beautiful, Beverly Fishman’s bands of iridescent colors cannot help but arouse one’s emotions, all the more so because one is mirrored by the paintings, suggesting that the squiggly lines embedded in the colors register one’s own nervous emotions. They in fact do: their patterns are transcriptions of EKG, EEG, and neuron spike readouts, with some bar codes thrown in to add a social measure to the disembodied bodily data. And, for good measure, some of the patterns are derived from the modular shapes of the pills and capsules that are supposed to cure us of our ailments, mental as well as physical. The pattern registers time, giving it spatial form, a geometrical objectification that suggests that all our problems are subjective and thus of no great consequence, however fraught with understated consequence the diagnostic patterns are.
It is in fact the insistent physicality of Fishman’s surfaces, with their dense layers of enamel paint, their colors adding a certain psychedelic flourish to the patterns, that suggests that Fishman’s paintings are an ironical advance on feminist-motivated art. Unlike the fabric painting of Miriam Schapiro, with their touchy-feely warmth, or the expressionist vaginas of Judy Chicago, or Carolee Schneeman’s visceral actings-out of her strong feelings, or Hannah Wilke’s mock sexual self-representations -- all engaging the feminist idea of “our bodies, ourselves,” and all painterly (down to the detail of Wilke’s marking her body with chewing gum) -- Fishman’s paintings are coolly detached, not to say ironically sober and smooth. There’s no sign of the raucous, painterly hand anywhere in the works, however hand-painted they are, and, more crucially, the patterns are all digitalized representations of bodily functions common to men and women.
They’re truly “universal abstractions,” indifferent to gender distinctions, yet not “transcendental abstractions,” for there’s nothing sublime about them: they’re all about the vulnerability of the flesh, the vicissitudes of the body impersonally measured by machines, suggesting the depersonalization of the body that the old-time feminists took very personally. Even more crucially, their “edgy” lines suggest that we’re all “on the edge” of having a breakdown. Thus our need for those reassuring mind-altering pills -- psychopharmacological treatment. Religion is the opium of the masses, Marx famously said, and pills are the idols in the temple of the new religion of the masses, promising even more than the old gods ever did to cure us of all our ills and solve all our problems, always inescapable whether made by ourselves or by nature.
What is presented as a medical panacea is treated as a pleasurable placebo by Fishman. For her paintings are hedonistic, whatever the pain implicit in them. They use medical monitoring systems to suggest that art can cure us of our suffering, when it can do no such thing, affording, at best, a certain intoxicating relief from it, as Freud suggested, like a good drink. Art is a cover-up, a form of self-deception and social deception, but it works its magical relief, and for more than a split second. Fishman’s graphs -- graphs of the heart and mind, as it were -- are composed of split seconds, subtly different if often repeating themselves, and always systematically aligned. The monitoring systems never pause -- Fishman in effect gives us a slice of their artificial intelligence -- nor do Fishman’s paintings.
They obediently follow the movement recorded by the monitoring machines. The movement is geometrical and gestural at once, that is, the linear gestures form geometrical patterns. All the more discreet and differentiated by their colors -- the entire spectrum seems present, the broad bands of colors underlined by the narrow white bands of light that separate them (and from which they seem to emerge and to which they seem to return) -- the graphic patterns become emblematic of the power of visual art. Fishman’s paintings are a species of systemic painting, suggesting that when all art systems -- styles, which are the programs that run art, the artificial intelligences that make it possible -- are “go,” as they are in Fishman’s paintings, then art has a powerful effect, as her paintings do in fact have. All the more so because they integrate seemingly opposed programs -- line and color, geometrical and gestural abstraction, refinement and rawness. All art programs fall somewhere between these extremes, although they’re not extremes, as the quasi-fractal character of Fishman’s linear gestures shows.
Pulling all the stops of abstract art, Fishman makes a powerful visual music -- an electronic music, all the more ironically seductive in the concentrated form of her pill sculptures. They give body to her disembodied paintings, and like them they’re a sort of “pretty poison” or “bitter medicine,” good-looking on the outside but sometimes bad on the inside. They’re emblems of our drug-addicted society. The casualness with which they are displayed suggests the ease with which drugs are available. “The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals,” Sir William Osler said, but sometimes medicine turns one into an animal. The pills Fishman prescribes have a tempting sensual presence, giving them animal appeal; one is eager to swallow them whole in expectation of instant relief from our aches and pains. Their traces are evident in her diagnostic paintings. The powerful medicine of art promises us utopian oblivion, the forgetfulness which is after all the only reasonable way for dealing with everything.
“Beverly Fishman,” Dec. 10, 2011-Jan. 28, 2012, Galerie Richard, 514 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.