Features & Columns

Process Painter

A new show at the SJ Museum of Art shows the art of Eric Fischl and how he got there
Eric Fischl DINNER'S ON: In his 1982 oil on canvas 'Barbeque,' Eric Fischl gives suburbia a disturbing surrealistic twist.

The grand opera of suburban wasteland America is now unfolding like a lawn chair at the San Jose Museum of Art. The new exhibit "Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting" pulls viewers into the elaborate process behind the artist's now-famous nudes of unglamorous proportions.

As soon as one enters the space, Fischl's 5-by-8-foot masterpiece, simply titled Barbeque, presents an awkward tension, practically screaming for a dysfunctional suburban aria.

A boy is blowing fire up in the air like a circus performer while standing in front of a bowl of dead fish. Two naked women frolic in a ridiculously geometric-shaped pool. At the same time, a beaming '80s version of Ward Cleaver works the barbecue with an orgasmic smile on his face.

The pink house in the background is one of those homogenous single-story tract-house monstrosities one sees in every California subdivision from Sylmar to San Leandro. In fact, the entire image reminds me of loopy magazine shots from 30 years ago, like something from Good Housekeeping gone painfully awry.

Fischl and I sauntered through the exhibit a few weeks ago. He explained, and I'm paraphrasing, that he grew up on Long Island, against the backdrop of a dysfunctional family, in the first generation of post-WWII suburban America right when the slaphappy, Eden-like euphoria of such an environment was being fetishized by tens of millions across the landscape.

He said that everyone assumed there couldn't exist a creative method of depicting such a dark operatic nightmare, but that was not the case. The naked underbelly of Eden soon emerged.

He's right, and his career proves it. Many of his paintings look like glossy magazine compositions but with characters in various states of unease. In the label text for Barbeque, Fischl says that, before he ever learned how to paint, the mass media inflicted on adolescents in suburban wasteland America fired up the muses and away he went: "Early influences involved exposure to characters, to figures, whatever came through television, magazines, movies, long before I saw a painting and certainly long before I understood painting. The influences were the other mediums that were pervasive in the culture. Of course, growing up in the suburbs, you went to the movies, you watched a lot of TV and you looked at magazines."

One perceives in Fischl's work an emotional distance between the all characters employed. And in some cases, they actually are employed. Sometimes, he stages live scenes with hired subjects, as in the legendary "Krefeld Project" series or in the paintings of poet Richard Price and his family. After taking massive amounts of photographs, Fischl then collages everything in Photoshop to find an adequate scene to paint.

In the show, and this is perhaps the best aspect of the experience, we see Fischl's process documented. Alongside the final paintings, we see dozens of photographs or studies illuminating his trials and errors—the path he took to the final image.

Fittingly, curator Jodi Throckmorton says that the exhibit is organized to show that Fischl did not just walk up to a blank canvas and paint these scenes. The exhibit is about process, not just the final result.

Viewers can glimpse into the universal components of the creative process—the components of failure, risk-taking and experimentation. In this way, anyone—right-brain or left-brain—should be able to identify with the procedure behind the scenes, even those who are not creatively inclined. Perfect for suburban Silicon Valley.

"We have audiences that are really interested in figurative painting, so we're hoping they can look at it from the perspective of creation," Throckmorton says. "But we're also hoping that engineers—people that may not be interested in art—can come in and see their own struggles with the creative process."

With this show, one dives deep into a dysfunctional suburban opera, replete with emotionally distant, unglamorous and awkward characters, many of whom are naked. It makes me want to write the libretto.

Dive Deep

Thru May 12

San Jose Museum of Art