Fault Lines: Paintings and Assemblages by Katherine Fishburn

Fault / Lines 2001: Paintings and Assemblages by Katherine Fishburn

 Contemporary art is a confusing free-for-all. Paintings and sculptures are made with bizarre and sometimes perishable materials; conceptual artworks conjoin ideas and disciplines that have no obvious connection or affinity. There is no mainstream trend in art any more, as there was (or appeared to be) during the modernist era, roughly 1900-1980. The art world’s focus on one style at the time, the new succeeding the old, had a certain simplicity (if you ignored the contradictions), but it also stifled or hampered creativity that did not fit the stile du jour (which of course changed every few years). When abstraction was de rigueur in the 1950s, figurative painters felt that were treated as reactionary enemies; the abstractionist Philip Guston was reviled as a traitor to the cause for returning to figuration and even storytelling during the1960s, with the nation riven by racial tensions and the Vietnam War, for refusing, in his words, “to adjust a red to a blue.”  Now that the idea of the avant-garde army marching in lockstep is blessedly over, artists have more freedom and more options, although, truth be told, the myth of historical inevitability made for easier marketing in postwar America.

 If contemporary artists enjoy more creative freedom than before in today’s pluralistic, nonhierarchical art world, they do still have to forge their way and personal, eclectic, subjective style. The Maryland-based painter and poet, Katherine Fishburn, has created such a style by hybridizing or combining twentieth-century freewheeling Abstract Expressionist paint application, pure color from nineteenth-century Impressionists and Fauves, and even political and philosophical concerns, perhaps not immediately apparent to the casual viewer, but informing and expanding the meaning of her paintings and assemblages. Fishburn: 

 My inspiration comes from everywhere: from my studies of world history, biology, literature, philosophy and politics. From what I have discovered walking along the shore, wandering through fallow fields and hiking at high altitudes. Most important: it comes from encountering great art… Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan and other female artists of abstract expressionism—also … the Spanish painters Goya, Dalí and Mirò.

The show’s title, Fault / Lines, reflects simultaneously the current societal and intellectual fractures in Western society (most notably in the USA)—and the uncertainty of contemporary life, a fundamental precept of the existentialists and their like-minded peers, the Abstract Expressionists; it’s a philosophical idea that has been around for millennia but was lost in the post-World-War-Two triumph of American culture and materialism, only re-emerging in the past two decades, after 9/11, when the myth of Fortress America tragically collapsed. 

 To express the complexity and contradictions of contemporary life, Fishburn creates, often without preplanning, oil paintings in which palette-knifed patches of strong color and abstract form vie with incised words invoking the artist’s concerns. The artist's immersion in “pushing paint around,” to cite an AbEx trope, would seem at first an incongruous fit with sociopolitical content, but these are personal artworks, not propaganda, even, perhaps, exorcisms, in a certain way. For Fishburn, laying the paint on “thick, with gouges and scrawls,” was “liberating. It was also a way to externalize the strong emotions I have about what is going on (i.e., wrong) in the world today.” The titles sometimes come after, “discovered,” and sometimes precede the painting process; clearly the immersion in painting brings to the surface issues lingering in the subconscious, as does all her art up to this point. According to her, she “resolutely mines the subconscious, making visible harsh truths and raw emotions that many in today’s world would disregard—preferring to avert their eyes and dismiss the difficult questions her work generates.” In addition, the titles are not always explanations of the abstract imagery: sometimes they are merely suggestive, or even in ironic counterpoint, as in Goya’s satirical Caprichos etchings. With their vibrant, bravura energy, the paintings catch and hold the eye of the art-centric viewer; but the sociopolitical messages contained therein, not always planned, make the images commentaries on public matters, or, in Latin, res publica, the etymon of our word ‘republic.’ They’re painterly abstractions that morph into covertly dissenting history paintings. 

Across America, for example, depicts a schematized national landscape based on America the Beautiful’s spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties, but in the hectic loaded-paint style of Van Gogh’s Crows in the Cornfield rather than the lush beauty of, say, Maxfield Parrish or Grant Wood. At top left we see a fragment of a tattered windblown Stars and Stripes, while below, in the tall grass, lie five sets of concentric red, white and orange circles: targets, or gun muzzles?

All Bleeding Eventually Stops is a skyscape in turbulent dark blue, white and yellow paint that might remind art mavens of the cosmic visions of Turner, Ryder or Clifford Still. The title, with its pathetic-fallacy suggestion that the body and the universe mirror each other, is an ironic medical axiom: either the wound heals or the heart stops bleeding. Which is it here?

Bon Appétit depicts a wedge of chocolate cake set in a darkened room, spot-lit by a ray of spiritual light, as in religious paintings depicting the Annunciation or saintly conversions. Scraped out of the thick dark paint (a mix of Dioxine purple, burnt umber and Alizarin red), however, are the inscription, “bon appétit,” and the initials, “MA.” Marie Antoinette, I learned recently, probably did not actually personally address the plight of the starving poor of pre-Revolutionary France by advising them dismissively to “Let-them-eat cake,”, since the quotation was attributed to other unpopular spendthrift foreign queens; but resentment toward out-of-touch ruling classes seems unfortunately always relevant—and bittersweet, as is chocolate made with the highest cocoa-content. 

Doctor’s Orders presents another Still-like abstraction, primarily in black and white, with patches of red, blue and purple. The word “script,” inscribed at top left, has a variety of meanings, from the common shorthand for prescriptions to handwriting itself, to money markers, to screenplays— and might also be seen as an homage to artists using writing in their works, from Miró (one of the artist’s favorite painters) to Picasso and Jasper Johns to Eric Wool. 

In Country is Fishburn’s response to the Vietnam War and its veterans, whom the artist taught at Michigan State University: “They were hungry to learn and soaked up everything I had to offer, unlike most of the other students in the class. They made teaching that damned course a joy—we both had a purpose. They had learned the hard and dangerous way the value of getting an education.”  The vertical-format painting presents an ambiguous slice of verdant landscape, set afire, undoubtedly based on the napalm and Agent Orange bombing campaigns designed to defoliate the jungle or rainforest, depriving the enemy of cover for weapons resupply.  A 45-degree right triangle is superimposed on the landscape, suggesting, perhaps, the use of military vectors and triangulation in target siting, also perhaps a pun is invoked as there was nothing “right” about the war, except for the Hawkish administration’s cabinet and the generals’ endless lies that we could win it.  “In-country” was GI slang for Vietnam (as opposed to the “the real world” of the US).  A perhaps long-forgotten battle waged early in the war occurred in The Iron Triangle (War Zone D). As Fishburn writes, “word-association is the name of the game,” so it is not farfetched to see an echo of the Bermuda Triangle, a so-called “wormhole,” where all at sea is lost—as we, too, lost the war to a well-organized rag-tag army of citizen soldiers who knew and loved their country far more than the arrogant American invaders, burdened down with their gear and heavy armaments—puzzled as to why they were there in the first place.

Nine Eleven was inspired by the lacy steel-girder scaffolding that remained standing after the towers had fallen. Fishburn writes that during the weekend that followed the attack, she drew in colored pencil a rough sketch of the horror, trying not so much to “understand it but to defeat it by creating something.” Her scene of national trauma is depicted semi-abstractly, as a welter of orthogonal blue-gray brushstrokes, surrounded by explosive flames of yellow and orange, all set against a darkened sky. The high-contrast gestural brushstrokes may suggest certain visionary landscapes of El Greco or the expressionist apocalypses of Franz Marc and Ludwig Meidner that seem in retrospect to have foretold The Great War.

We Ate Our Shoes is unusual in that the title preceded the painting, although I do not know its source. I cannot help cite Charlie Chaplin’s boiled boot and laces (eating spaghetti-style, wound on a fork) in The Gold Rush. Fishburn’s image of geological strata blue and white at the top, for sky or water, succeeded by layers of deep red (composed of magma? or blood?) and cracked gray (mud? or the enormous boulders which cover the ground at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg?) reminds us that we are composed of elements common to the rest of Creation: dust to dust. A thin layer of white skulls serves as a wry memento mori, like the excavated skull of Hamlet’s boyhood companion, Yorick the jester. The bulk of the painting is the indifferent landscape: humans are reduced to only the heads of their skeletons.

Along with the paintings, the show includes nine assemblages made during the past year, composed of everyday items, mostly vintage, with some purchased online, since brick-and-mortar browsing has been curtailed, with everything else. Arranging marbles, earrings, brooches, carved animal and human figurines, hat pin holders, seedpods, seashells, bottles, paint brushes, miniature trees, pencil sharpeners, locomotive engines, perfume bottles and vases into tall pyramidal structures, Fishburn creates what she calls ships: metaphorical container vessels (that also suggest floral arrangements) for miscellaneous humble objects that carry the poetic aura of human usage, even if they defy literal analysis. Reverence for the past and for lowly objects is more Asian than western, and Fishburn chooses objects from Japan and Thailand, embracing their cultural meanings while subsuming them into her creative universe. “Stuart’s Folly,” for example, is named after a neighbor’s Shi Tzu puppy, but its punning title plays with Seward’s Folly, the 1867 once-mocked land deal through which the United States acquired worthless Russian colonies from Alaska to northern California. If Fishburn’s paintings subtly exhort us to save the world, her assemblages invite us to savor its rich and varied cultural smorgasbord.

As a postscript, Fishburn writes:

I guess maybe I am only recognizing now that I created “ships” to both escape the plague (by losing myself in the act of creating them) and to bring the outside world to me. I chatted with almost every vendor on Etsy from whom I bought the components of my creations; it was very social, one of the very few interactions I had with other people all year. Also, one of the first haunting images of the pandemic was the ironically named cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, anchored and quarantined at Yokohama for a month because it was infested, not with rats, but with highly contagious Covid-19 passengers. Conversely, there is Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 allegorical novel Ship of Fools about the rise of the Nazis. Ambiguity and paradoxes delight me.