Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2014
Jessica Morgan and Ulrich Lehmann URS FISCHER Exh. cat. New York: Kiito-San, 2013. 650 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9780984721047)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, April 21–August 19, 2013
Installation view, URS FISCHER, MOCA Grand Avenue and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (photograph © 2013 Brian Forrest; provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles)

For keen-eyed visitors, the exhibition URS FISCHER, mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), last summer, began at the ticket booth located on the museum’s street-level outdoor plaza. There viewers encountered a sign that read, “Please note that one sculpture in URS FISCHER contains a combination of substances which produce mold,” preparing them both to appreciate and be wary of the artist’s sculptural aesthetic of decay, often literalized through the use of decomposing organic materials (fruit, bread), melting wax, or crudely formed works that give the impression they could fall apart at any moment. Inside the exhibition, however, it was not apparent to which artwork the mold warning referred, the effect being that all the works were charged with an aura of toxicity.

Indeed, the first galleries at MOCA’s Grand Avenue location introduced the Swiss artist’s work as a kind of visual rot. A selection of pieces from the 1990s showed Fischer’s practice to be founded in a recognizably Austrian-German-Swiss celebration of the pathetic and decrepit, calling up such forefathers as Dieter Roth, Sigmar Polke, and Franz West. There was Tisch mit (1995–2001), a mass of bulging fabric bound and manipulated into the shape of two obese legs, spread and dangling over the edge of a table, the whole thing glistening with lacquer drips. An even simpler version of the artist’s favored gesture at this moment—the impulsive rearrangement or fussing up of readymade materials—was Skelett (1996), a precarious and provisional mock-up of modernist architecture constructed out of bricks, cement, and gobs of unfired clay, existing at an awkward scale between typical architectural model and functional building. The scene was completed by Untitled (50 Rocks) (1996), a collection of found river rocks indexing an absent landscape.

These imaginative yet simple hand-wrought works, transparent in their facture, seemed far from the art for which Fischer is known today—specifically his finely rendered, cast, and finished sculptures and silkscreen paintings on aluminum. Indeed, most of the works on display were produced in the last ten years, during which time Fischer’s career and sophistication of production have advanced dramatically. Still, the exhibition catalogue texts repeatedly and romantically compare Fischer to a champion athlete, marshaling forth the modernist trope of the individual artist alone in the studio, wrestling with material and form. More realistically, Fischer is an exemplary contemporary artist: sorcerer of material technologies, capable of organizing high-tech materials, capital, and a skilled labor pool toward the creation of mystifying commodity fetishes ranging from the scale of the individual object to the all-encompassing environment.

What Fischer has carried forth from his early practice is his penchant for the affective power of a singular, whimsical image. Curator Jessica Morgan took advantage of this strength of Fischer’s work to organize the show in the manner of a grand scenography. Works were organized into a series of linked vignettes that seemed intent on co-opting viewers into a piece of unscripted theater. In a most flat-footed pairing, Fischer’s baguette-encrusted chalet Untitled (Bread House) (2004–5) (sadly lacking its usual parakeet inhabitants) was “rained on” by Horses Dream of Horses (2004), a suspended array of 1,500 oversize plaster raindrops. Viewers were all too happy to play along, taking countless images not of the works but of themselves within and among them. By now it may as well be its own genre: photo-op art. Such photogenic scenes were held together by the knowledge, which came in and out of consciousness, that the floor of the entire exhibition, covered over with black adhesive vinyl, constituted one work, Untitled (Floor Piece) (2006). The show’s whiz-bang entertainment aesthetics and sometimes superficial public engagement, perhaps owing more to Morgan’s curation than the artworks themselves, belonged to the vision of MOCA’s controversial former director, Jeffrey Deitch. The success of this model was symbolically called into question when Deitch announced his resignation partway through the show’s run.

According to the reticent Fischer, his works self-justify as visual quixotries. But his hermetic fantasies can be read precisely as a symptom of our contemporary remove from complex global realities that appear as so many unimpeachable abstractions. Moreover, they figure a dreamscape of apocalypse, a toxic funhouse, an image of ruin. There is so much decrepitude, debasement, and destruction to be found in Fischer’s oeuvre, from warped and crushed beds to noodly lampposts and melting human bodies. Even as the artist’s production has advanced technically, the sculptures continue to shrink from their grandiosity. Recalling the vinyl sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, so many have a quality of deflation. This impression came to the fore in a gallery that featured sculptures of posed skeletons produced between 2000 and 2007. Each lolls against a lamppost, couch, bench, or washing machine. Each is covered in dust. What critics have failed to comment upon thus far is that the skeletons are arranged in poses of sexual ecstasy or solicitation. Here are the figures, programmed for pleasure, destined to populate the exhibition scenography: deadened narcissists wandering amid Fischer’s disaster-scape, gleeful to be fucked by forces invisible to them.

By the early 2000s, Fischer had moved away from a commitment to material self-evidence in favor of a production process increasingly complex and visually mysterious. While the skeletons, for instance, appear to be scrappily constructed from foam, they are in fact cast aluminum, as are his wonky, distorted furniture pieces. The effect is often sublime bewilderment. (Equally bewildering, then, is Ulrich Lehmann’s catalogue essay, “Works to Show Work,” which attempts to connect Fischer’s engagement with industrial manufacturing processes to the revolutionary materialist concerns of Soviet Productivism.) Perhaps this is owed to the phenomenon of an artist trained in photography working in the three-dimensional space of sculpture. Fischer’s works have the quality of images, realized. They belong to an emergent trend, seen also in the work of artists from Charles Ray to Frank Benson and Matthew Day Jackson, in which sculptures are rendered (in both the artistic and computational sense) after digital images.

The latest in Fischer’s line of image-sculptures on view at MOCA was a series of pristine mirror-glass boxes, each silkscreened with digitally enhanced, hyper-realistic images of an everyday object corresponding to the five visible faces of a cube. Between three and twenty-six inches tall, the objects are all slightly enlarged from their usual scale and clustered in groups of two, three, or four: a cassette tape, three-way pipe, and wood block; a Ping-Pong paddle, calculator, asparagus spear, and staple gun; an alarm clock, sponge, and Wasa cracker. Perplexed viewers are not helped by the groupings’ nonsensical titles—KITTINGER/ZAWACKI/YUTZY (2012) is the name for a Tic Tac box, clothespin, and twenty-dollar bill. Fischer’s mirror-boxes should be thought alongside his Problem Paintings (2011–13), two examples of which were included at MOCA. These photomontages silkscreened onto aluminum panels depict Golden Age glamour shots of Hollywood actors obscured by individual machine parts and articles of food. Fischer’s inexplicable, manic juxtapositions treat figurative images as purely formal, compositional elements. Taken together, these shiny object-fetishes, seamlessly designed rather than sculpted or painted, approach a kind of material abstraction in line with their abstraction of signification. The Pop-ish appropriations are emblematic of Fischer’s tendency to employ art-historical references to amnesiac effect, unmooring avant-garde aesthetics from a critical project.

The exhibition’s second half, mounted at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, offered a compensatory gesture to the hyper-sophisticated, spellbinding/alienating (depending on one’s view) work on display at Grand Avenue. Across twenty-one days, over 1,500 unique volunteers collaborated on filling much of the converted warehouse space with a hand-sculpted, figurative landscape made from 308 tons of unfired clay. YES, as the work was named, was a delightful vision—animals, gorgons, imaginary architectures, all manner of real and mythical creatures—the whole thing a testament to the anti-technology of creative, manual human labor. Fischer and a dedicated project manager were in residence every day to oversee the installation, but by all accounts volunteers received little guidance, and rare interventions were made only in the interest of safety. As if in acknowledgement that today’s viewers are alienated from the processes of contemporary artistic production, YES was a gesture of generosity and a romantic hearkening back to Fischer’s early practice when he too was an individual in the studio wrestling with material and form with his own two hands. And yet, the gesture was painfully undercut by Untitled (Big Clay #7) (2008–13) standing just outside, a forty-five-foot-tall cast aluminum enlargement of a wad of clay handled by Fischer, which dwarfed the volunteers’ collective efforts. In addition, occupying a large corner of the Geffen was Josh Smith (2013), a life-size, uncanny replica in wallpaper of Fischer’s artist-friend’s New York apartment, an inversion of the mirror-boxes’ hyperreal phenomenology into a container form that surrounds the viewer on all sides. The only object ultimately fit to occupy such a space had to be Fischer’s latest sculptural feat, Horse/Bed (2013), a neo-surrealist, milled aluminum sculpture of a horse embedded in a hospital bed. It seemed to have no reason to exist but to announce that it is possible and that Fischer has done it. In its two complementary, problematic halves, URS FISCHER acted out the anxieties that define contemporary art’s current technological sublime.

Natilee Harren
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art History and Visual Arts, Occidental College