At first, what is most striking about Eric Fischl’s current exhibition, Presence of an Absence, at Skarstedt Gallery, London, is that all the figures seem to have been caught off guard from their various activities and alerted to something happening beyond the canvas in the space occupied by the viewer.
The primary event that is ascribed to this is the election and subsequent taking of office by Donald Trump. This is directly referenced in Worry (2017), where, on the wall of a child’s bedroom is a reimagined poster of a clown with Trump’s face. A little girl stands on the bed with an older male holding her hand. Both look towards the bedroom door with their backs turned to the viewer, anticipating that something grave is about to happen. At first, the man’s presence provides extremely sinister connotations – is he about to be caught in the act of something repulsive? Possibly, but the presence of a dress flung over the door – is the man’s wife coming in, is this his child - invites the plausibility of narrative that is far less appalling. The lack of answers, though, endues pangs of anxiety as the viewer is locked in a state of uncertainty and predicted pain and anguish – a collective feeling that speaks to the reality of many upper-middle class Americans now as much as to the fate of these two protagonists.
What is less obvious at first but reveals itself throughout the course of this latest body of work is where this shared apprehension takes place - the suburbs - and how this last stronghold of privileged white America, one of the archetypal images of the American dream, has plummeted into disarray.
Although Fischl’s paintings are carefully designed to only provide a platform for a deeper, wider interpretation, the viewer’s projection on to the family and larger social dynamics that he examines, it would seem, are bound to be, at least in small part, aided by the current social crises that are changing the face of American society and are being broadcasted around the world in real-time via digital media platforms. As a result, and particularly when viewed in comparison to a painting like Robert Bechtle’s, ‘61 Pontiac (1968 - 1969), a seismic shift in social conduct, a detachment from the core values once lauded as the benchmark of the American dream, is evident.
In ‘61 Pontiac (1968 - 1969), Bechtle stands proudly with his family, a nuclear family - a straight white couple with a son and daughter, in front of their 1961 Pontiac, while behind, the perfectly manicured front lawns of a large suburban home can be seen. By placing the audience as the role of the photograph, Bechtle gently boasts, here I am with my family and together we are achieving the American dream, and you can, too. The painting offers a sweet optimism, characterized by the availability of such a luxury consumer product, the Pontiac, that embellishes an Eden away from the horrors of the second world war and away from the rise of inner-city ghettos and the racial tensions and crimes attributed to these areas because of that.
In stark contrast however, the characters that inhabit Fischl’s paintings exist with an icy-stiffness, instead of being proud in building their perfect lives, instead, feel entitled to and are validated by rooms filled with iconic artworks as seen in the Warhol clad living room in Last Look Mirror (2017) or lounging by shimmering pools in In Pretzel (2017) and She and Her (2017). Despite the overtly sexual overtones of the latter, which in themselves prescribe an air of greed and lust and a detachment from moral values, there is still a recurring feeling of segregation and stand-offishness.
In Pretzel (2017), a group of tanned women are gathered by the edge of a swimming pool engaged in some kind of discussion as they look towards or near each other with a sense of severity. Fischl goes to great pains to highlight their toned bodies and the fleshiness of their skin, working over it with his brush so that each gesture feels like a slice of meat. In doing this, Fischl focuses the viewer’s attention to an underlying air of sexual one-upmanship between the figures, which in turn imposes the opinion of them being fickle and childish, waiting for the opportunity to spot a flaw in the lives of their friends in order to boost their own sense of self-righteousness and self-worth.
Fischl is no stranger to this. In A Woman Possessed (1981), concurrently on view at the Arts Club in Mayfair, Fischl cathartically depicts a scene from his own traumatic childhood in the suburbs of Long Island. The painting depicts a woman passed out drunk in the driveway of her house, an empty tumbler lying on the floor next to her. A boy has placed his schoolbooks neatly to one side, not thrown them down as would be expected. This is not the first time the boy has been forced to do this and he is now attempting to drag her inside away from the hounding eyes of a pack of dogs which have gathered around her and are gnaw at her clothing, a metaphor for the neighbours who looked on with contempt rather than offer him help. Guilt, shame and embarrassment – his family kept their mother’s alcoholism a secret as best they could, but she eventually committed suicide when he was 22.
Continuing through the exhibition as non-American viewer the environments and the objects that inhabit them take on otherworldliness. This is aided by both the sheer scale of the paintings, which feel larger than life and very cinematic, and by the fact that our first point of reference for these images is in fact cinema and television rather than reality. As such, they begin to suffer from a lack of believability or, put another way, the seriousness with which the impending sense of danger or change that permeates throughout the works loses its edge slightly.
Because of this, Fischl’s application of paint becomes the vehicle for further reflection. It has the appearance of being laissez-faire yet it is in fact very methodical and calculated to do so. As a result, the power and cuttingness with which Fischl approaches his subject matter and the demographic that have helped create his status within the confines of the artworld is deceptive and easy to overlook. He is not just a painter of stills that could be from American Beauty or Revolutionary Road nor is it an attack on the Trump presidency, what it is, is a methodically choreographed series of scenes that express an absence of something found between the outward appearance and inner dysfunction of a privileged American archetype that is currently at breaking point. And it is this juxtaposition between appearance and the inner workings that Fischl’s painting style mimicks.