Louise Fishman in her studio, 2010. Photo: Deanna Sirlin
Taking the Ball and Running
A Studio Visit with Louise Fishman
by Deanna Sirlin
Louise Fishman has graciously invited me to her Chelsea studio to speak with me about her life as an artist. There are no finished works in her studio as Fishman has sent off her most recent work to be shown in a solo exhibition at the Paule Anglim Gallery in San Francisco. On the studio walls are several paintings and drawings Fishman has just started. As these are works in progress they do not have the depth and fissures found in Fishman’s finished paintings and drawings. I find it fascinating to get a glimpse of the structure beneath the skin of the painting. Seeing the skeleton that defines the form, you can’t help but anticipate the many layers of paint that will constitute and become the finished work.
Fishman’s personal history informs her painting. She loved to play basketball in high school and is still an athletic woman. The physicality of her paintings testifies to this; one can imagine the edges of the canvas as the boundaries and free-throw lines of a basketball court. It is as if Fishman passes the ball to herself, takes it and runs to the other side of the court to make another pass and then jumps and shoots, all through her brush work, paint, and color. You sense the athleticism of her work in the curves and dribbles of paint and the physical rhythm mapped out in her brushstrokes. All Night and All Day, a painting from 2008 in oil on canvas, is human sized (66 inches tall by 57 inches wide). The artist can reach from to top and bottom; it is a world where she is in control not only of the paint and structure but also of the scale. She can move her arms, equipped with a loaded brush, with finesse across or down or around with the space she created. Like any good athlete, performer, or artist, she makes the whole thing look effortless, as if making the mark is simply a natural act.
Fishman’s work is also deeply informed by her engagement with feminism. As she puts it, “Feminism, the women's movement, the lesbian movement had a major effect on my work - and my life, of course. It radicalized me, and my work. Gave me a sense of the uniqueness of my position as a woman/lesbian artist. And lots of power!” Fishman’s studio is her very private place. Sammy, a small black poodle, sleeps or watches as Fishman works. This companion is a great witness to her working methods. He is fidelity itself, watching and knowing. Sammy is like a small shadow that is the artist’s other self, a sensitive alter-ego.
Studio of Louise Fishman. Photo: Deanna Sirlin
Fishman’s finished paintings are built up in many layers to create depth of field. The 2010 paintings that have been shipped to California are mainly vertical compositions. The colors in these 2010 works have a freshness of hue; they radiate light that opens up the space of the paintings. Grays and whites are interspersed with deep dark ultramarines and stratified with small amounts of red and ochre. A wonderfully warm and brightly saturated mixture of thalo blue and thalo green meanders around the painted surfaces. The paint is slathered on, thick and luminous with many fractals of color in every passage. Each rectangle presses up against the next, sometimes overlapping but sometimes breaking like waves on the shore, strong and lively, with lavish bravado. Fishman’s titles, such as Zero At the Bone, are small bits of provocative, somewhat opaque prose that reveal only feeling.
Fishman’s paintings were not always so full of color and air. In her early works, a cornucopia of grays were embedded on a grid which gave the paintings their structure and presence. Describing her use of the grid as a compositional structure, she has said: “The grid comes and goes. It's there now in some ways, but not as obvious. The stricter grid continues to appear from time to time.” With Saga, a painting of 2010, Fishman both returns to and reinvents the grid: the layered paint pulls the structure apart slightly to make it something more.
Louise Fishman, Saga, 2010. Oil on jute, 51 x 30 inches
The child of an artist mother and a father who was the son of a Talmudic scholar (Fishman is named for her grandfather), she grew up reading and listening to the radio about the atrocities of the Holocaust. In 1988 she and a friend, Valerie Furth, a Holocaust survivor, traveled to concentration camps in Czechoslovakia and Poland, provoking feelings of terrible grief. As Fishman left Auschwitz she encountered a pond where the victims’ ashes had settled. She impulsively scooped up a handful of the sludge, feeling that she must bring back whatever she could, save Jews in any form she could. She brought the ashes back to her studio and mixed them with beeswax and then into paint. Using the ashes in this way made the paintings into memorials and provided the artist with the catharsis she needed to keep working after the emotionally difficult task of traveling to the sites of the Holocaust.
How does one continue in the studio after feeling such pain and grief? Fishman meditates as a way of helping her to “slow down, and notice things in the painting process that need to change or deepen.” Finally, what is remarkable about her paintings is that you must slow down to really see them. They are about only painting, but painting that makes you feel the presence of the artist and her life.