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>> Eric Fischl: Rooms for the Illicit
>> Portrait: Anna Orlikowska
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Rooms for the Misbegotten
A Conversation between Eric Fischl and Cheryl Kaplan

Eric Fischl
Photo: Cheryl Kaplan, © Copyright 2006 Cheryl Kaplan. All rights reserved.

His paintings have a clammy atmosphere, a kind of somnambulist detachment. Eric Fischl’s figures could easily spring from a John Updike story. Torn between a bored middle-class existence in an American suburb and clandestine desires and fears, they can be seen on beaches, hanging around the swimming pool, or relaxing in the modernist ambience of their homes. In his paintings and prints, the New York artist reveals the dark side of private lives that otherwise seem quite casual on the surface. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is currently showing Fischl’s work on the occasion of the Peter Blum Edition "Singular Multiples." Cheryl Kaplan met with the artist in his studio.

Untitled no. 125, 1986, Oil on Kromecoat
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

A David Salle painting is crated and sitting at the bottom of the stairs when I arrive at Eric Fischl’s New York studio in SoHo. The elevator is out, so the men will have to carry the painting up several flights of stairs. Salle and Fischl went to school together at Cal Arts at just the right moment in the early 70s. The school was founded in 1961 by Walt Disney to bring the visual and performing arts together. Fischl, like most of his generation at Cal Arts, grew up in the suburbs. It was soon to become his central subject, loaded as it was with sexually powerful and emotionally disturbing imagery. No one had seen the suburbs like that, certainly not in painting. Todd Solondz did it much later in his films, but Fischl was the first to expose its clandestine language, transforming the utterly familiar into something uncanny and shocking.

Krefeld Project, Sunroom Scene 3, 2002
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

Fischl’s work combines a stunning privacy with an invasive and eerie irreverence. His cast, sometimes petulant, sometimes numb, is always on the prowl. Fischl dulls the senses and then accelerates the pitch, using the light in his work to erase a lifetime or see right through it. His characters are laconic and tense, but when they turn towards each other, an operatic saintliness can be felt in the room.

Fischl’s work has been exhibited internationally, from the Whitney Museum of American Art and Mary Boone in New York and the Smithsonian to his gallery in Cologne, the Jablonka Galerie. Fischl and I spent the afternoon talking about his early drawings on glassine, his paintings, and the monoprints to be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of the Singular Multiples exhibition organized around the Peter Blum Edition.

Study for Sleepwalker, 3 pieces, 1979
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

CHERYL KAPLAN: Sleepwalker, painted in 1979, was incredibly shocking at the time. It launched suburbia as a genre. What’s your reaction when you see the suburban used in contemporary photography like the work of Gregory Crewdson?

ERIC FISCHL: Crewdson has more of a relationship to David Lynch’s cinematic and psychological sensibility, that’s more explicit than my work. Until the 80s, suburbia wasn’t seen as a legitimate oeuvre. Cindy Sherman, Salle, and Kruger grew up in the suburbs. I was dealing with the suburb as an archetypal and psychological situation that could happen anywhere.

Krefeld Project, Living Room Scene 1, 2002
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

How do you decide who gets in your paintings and who doesn’t?

I try to triangulate something believable into a dramatic moment where something stands back to observe.

What was it like directing actors for the The Krefeld Project in Germany?

I’d never worked with actors before, only models. I watched and took photographs. I asked playwright, actor, and director friends what you do with actors. The best advice was to give them problems like "she wants $500 and won’t tell him why." Often I was so riveted I wasn’t photographing.

Krefeld Project, Sunroom Scene 1, 2002
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

Are there characters who’ve remained for the long haul?

Early on, it happened frequently. There was a painting that started as a wedding, and then I realized it wasn’t a wedding. I thought, what am I doing with all these people? I ended up with a nocturnal scene by a pool with a woman in a butterfly chair, a black man next to her.

The Brat II, 1984
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

Your work has a strong sense of oppositional tension. The scale establishes a psychological polarity.

The painting Cargo Cults takes place on some exotic beach. In the foreground there’s a bag and crew from Love Boat hanging around, some in uniforms… one guy’s naked, hollering at two nude women walking along the shoreline. In the background there’s a shaman trying to put a spell on them. A maniacal character screams at the center of two different worlds. I didn’t follow those worlds going in opposite directions but I should’ve followed the shaman to his village, where his power was in context. The painting is situated precisely in that polarity you’re talking about. I was putting worlds together that can’t be joined, despite their simultaneous existence. When the resort life winds down to a terrifying ennui, you long for the drama that drove you crazy. You have to respect wanting art to have that quality.

Cargo Cults, 1984
Courtesy Eric Fischl and Mary Boone Gallery

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