Art Presence of an Absence by Eric Fischl

In a series of cracking paintings the American artist gets the viewer emotionally invested in the characters depicted on the canvas.

Can the techniques of a scriptwriter also work for an artist? This question crossed my mind when I was listening to the artist, Eric Fischl, discussing his new body of work ‘Presence of an Absence’ at Skarstedt Gallery in London.

Fischl’s psychologically charged paintings look like frozen stills of a movie featuring a number of intriguing and slightly mysterious characters in mostly wealthy settings. While painting these works Fischl asks himself similar type of questions that scriptwriters ask themselves when they are creating and building their movie characters. “Who are these people, how are they connected to each other, what motivates them, what do they want, what are their fears?”

Listening to Fischl talking about his work made me realise that the techniques of a scriptwriter can also work for an artist. It seems he also employs a strategy that Quentin Tarantino uses. When the director of Pulp Fiction, writes his scripts he follows the characters. They determine what is going to happen next. It drives him into unknown, unpredictable but exciting territory.

Fischl gets his viewers hooked in trying to find answers what the work could be about. The title of the painting can provide a clue. In the painting, ‘She and Her’, is the older woman ‘she’ and the younger woman ‘her’? Is the bald man her husband and the young man their son? Why is she so tense and dragging on her cigarette? Is she not amused by her husband looking at the half naked woman who might be her son’s girlfriend?

Are the two women in the painting ‘Last Look Mirror’ about to go out? Are they dressed in black because they are going to attend a funeral? Fischl provides a series of clues in the paintings but doesn’t give away the plot and triggers the imagination of the viewer. They won’t find definitive answers though and left to drawn their own conclusions.

During the artist’s tour of the exhibition Fischl discussed the works in the show by sharing a series of specific questions he asked himself while he painted the works including ‘The Appearance’ – a painting featuring a man and a woman in a bedroom. “Why is the woman wearing a dress during the day which would be more appropriate to wear in the evening? The man is wearing a bathrobe and you wonder is she waiting for him to get dressed before they go out? Is the man going to get dressed in an outfit to match hers? If he is going to fit in an outfit to match hers, which one of those suitcases holds the tuxedo? None of suitcases seem to be the right type of suitcase to hold her dress or whatever he is going to end up in. The luggage starts to feel for me like being something else. Is it not luggage, but baggage? When you look at the room you see two large beds and you wonder what kind of room is this? Is it a hotel room? Is it their master bedroom? As there are two beds does that say something about the condition of their marriage?

The man is absorbed into what he is reading, but you are never going to find out what he is reading. The title of the painting is ‘The Appearance’. Is it an appearance at something? Is he a guest speaker at a congress or is he going to deliver an eulogy?

The man seems not to be present with the woman in the room – he is elsewhere. Is he perhaps not there at all? Is the woman having a memory of the past when she was in the room with him once?”

Talking about “She and Her” Fischl expressed his amusement in painting the work. “When you look at the flesh of the bald man from top to bottom, it moves from a healthy to a dying flesh. I was very excited for myself that the shadow became a sort of socks. It seems cruel and funny.” Fischl laughed and continued, “What excites me in painting the guy are things like the white temple of his sunglasses which are not connected to the glasses themselves. You connect it yourself. By looking at the sunglasses you gain a sense about the type of person who is wearing this style of sunglasses.”

Then he turned to the older woman. “I’m thrilled myself how little it took to create her see-through outfit that overlayers a red bikini. This is where I live. In painting these details of a person I’m building a character other than just a simple image of that person”.

Most of the characters that Fischl creates on the canvas are characters we can relate to in our own lives. Also, the characters address issues, fears and insecurities that we struggle with in our own lives. Is the bald man in ‘She and Her’ the embodiment of a man in his mid-life crisis believing that he is still attractive enough for young girls? Is the lady insecure about getting older and afraid that her husband doesn’t find her attractive anymore? Fischl’s characters are fascinating and intriguing to watch in which the viewer emotionally wants to invest just like a great movie character.

Written by Thierry Somers

Eric Fischl, Presence of an Absence, until 9th of June at Skarstedt London
Eric Fischl, She and Her, 2017, oil on linen 98 x 110 inch. (248.9 x 279.4 cm.) © Eric Fischl. Courtesy of Skarstedt
Eric Fischl, Last Look Mirror, 2017, oil on linen 98 x 80 inch. (248.9 x 203.2 cm.) © Eric Fischl. Courtesy of Skarstedt
Eric Fischl, The Appearance, 2018 oil on linen 68 x 90 inch. (172.7 x 228.6 cm.) © Eric Fischl. Courtesy of Skarstedt

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