"Taking from Life:" My Phone Call with Matthew F Fisher

Matthew F Fisher, Songs of Finland (Blue), 2017, Ink on paper, 9 x 5 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist


A certain philosophical depth persists in Matthew F Fisher’s cool, beach-centered paintings. His brightly-hued works are mellow, pleasant at a glance and could be construed as just being flatout dreamy. But their colors, the strangeness of their warped scale and juxtapositions of forms enchant perceptually. The often symbolic elements in Fisher’s images also evoke the ineffable, bearing a deeper vision. As a result, his work always provokes imagination. 

Fisher is a recent Los Angeles transplant by way of New York City. I happened upon a showing of his acrylic paintings in 2015 at the Ampersand Gallery in Portland, Oregon. I was intrigued by his having lived in NYC, and that the scenes in his pictures seem to resemble landscapes elsewhere. They looked to me more like, maybe, Malibu — and I don’t know why, but in my mind, Montauk or even Rockaway seemed not likely at all. I’d become curious about his methods, theories, inspirations, and why there were never any people in his work. During a recent showing of his drawings at Ampersand, proprietor Myles Haselhorst mentioned Matthew’s plan to relocate to Los Angeles. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to pull on his coat; the following is our phone conversation, one late summer morning.

Paul Maziar: So you’re in Hawaii now?

Matthew F Fisher: We’re in Kauai, the oldest Hawaiian island, right on the beach.

PM: That sounds like a dream. Must be pretty surreal, that trip being in the middle of your move from New York City to Los Angeles.

MF: The whole thing is very Dharma Bums. We don’t move into our apartment for two weeks so we’re on a two-month road trip. 

PM: All these beach-and-ocean scenes that show up in your paintings, were those kinds of scenes more or less imagined, fantasy scenes when you were back East? 

MF: My grandfather and I spent a lot of time on the Atlantic ocean when I was a kid, and later in life, my parents moved to West Michigan, so I’ve always been near the water. I see these works as thinking back to the sense of awe that I had as a little kid, staring at these large bodies of water and not understanding that there’s a whole life underneath it. There’s a whole other world on the other side of the horizon line. So they’re tributes to that kind of primal curiosity. 

The works aren’t necessarily based on any one thing in particular. But lately, I’ve been interested in the quick moments that I see, especially on this trip — like, say, waves crashing on a rock. I’ll record that as a thumbnail sketch to bring back into the studio to develop it. I’ll distill something from an actual moment and then create an all new moment. I once saw two rocks and a big wave that crashed between them — it’s that kind of moment. That infinite, endless cycle of this world’s existence — you know, I was there to see it. I’ll make a little note so that later, I can return to refine it and create this new moment, this perfect moment. Though of course it started out as an already perfect moment. A different kind of perfect moment. 

Matthew F Fisher, The Narrows, 2015 Acrylic on canvas, 28 x 22 inches, Private collection, Brooklyn, NY, courtesy of the artist

PM: It becomes something else entirely. But, thinking back to your having been in NYC, the environment is so much different than this kind of environment. Did you take trips to places like Montauk and others, or was it more or less your recollection of these scenes?

MF: It was more or less my remembering and putting it together within the frame of the canvas. I had a formal approach, even though it’s a very informal subject. But then there are a few that I’ve done of the empty beach — those reference Lake Michigan and being near the dunes of Western Michigan. So you have an elevated perspective of the water when you’re looking out at it. I see those being more about Lake Michigan as well, because that lake has the tendency to be extremely calm — no waves, as opposed to the ocean which is always roaring at its own pace. It’s funny, within the titles that I use, I don’t feel comfortable giving reference to America, because maybe I feel that I know America. So there’s a lot of European titles to give another layer of enigma. 

PM: That word “enigma” makes me think of de Giorgio de Chirico...

MF: And de Chirico is a constructed reality, too. At least in the early works we think of. It’s, like, a reconstruction of a construction.

PM: Thinking about other twentieth century artists: Duchamp, Giacometti, who were moving away from being occupied by the idea that they had to create a one-to-one representation of what they saw — do you feel like you and some of your contemporaries have rid yourselves of that problem?

MF: I think there’s a resurgence of the landscape motif, and for me, I see that as the perfect bridge between abstraction and figuration: You can be abstract, and it has a relation to the body, to the human experience (because we all see landscapes) but you’re free to invent your reality within it. I’m thinking of Shara Hughes, Alan Praz. There’s this freedom to push reality all the way to abstraction, but it never really is abstraction. And it kind of answers the question of "abstraction or figuration?" It allows the thing to be both at the same time. And it’s this perfect, malleable motif that just goes back and forth between the two. The two artists I mentioned, as of now, seem to make figureless landscapes — so naturally, you the viewer are the one in the landscape. I don’t have any figures in my landscapes either, so we’re left to be the figures.

Matthew F Fisher, Songs of Finland (Blue) (verso), 2017, Ink on paper, 9 x 5 1/2 inches, courtesy of the artist

PM: I was just going to ask you about that: Why don’t human figures appear in your pictures? 

MF: I think it just kind of came to me that way. I did a large early body of work where figures were heavily present as a narrative vehicle, a symbolic element. After that it was the still lifes, a lot of props which are tied to humans. In a way, a lot of this recent work is a kind of revolt against all the systems that I’d set up previously. The very specific narrative, historical settings (real places), figuration, etc. I wanted to be free of all that. I wanted to shift the burden of that back to the viewer. The way that I resolved these works was to add more stuff, more detail, more props — a little fire in the background, a snail crawling across... little details that exist in everyday life. I wanted to move on. So I gave myself the simple goal of doing everything different. By not having the figure in this work, there’s a coyness with sense of scale. You don’t know how big the rocks are or how small the waves are. You don’t know where you are — especially for the ones without land at the bottom. So I’m trying to mess with perception in a way. Once you put that figure in, it all gets grounded. 

PM: The great thing about that, when the viewer is the figure, is that some of the rock formations have an intensity and relatability that makes the human not all that necessary. 

MF: Exactly, and you don’t know how big these rocks are. And also, within the work, you look at it with a sense of how things in the real world act, and realize it’s totally fake. These rocks purposely look like sheet metal coming up out of the ground. I’m thinking of those great Ellsworth Kelly sculptures in rusten iron. They’re completely flat but they’re also painted in a way that gives them full form, a rotundness. So my work has this contradiction — both real and unreal; flat and dimensional; natural and artificial. And I kind of think of it (and this goes back to de Chirico) as “memory space.” We think we know what a wave looks like; we think we know what a sunset looks like in our mind, but when you actually go out and see it, you’re always so blown away at how real it actually is. I’m interested in these concepts — images in our mind, how we think we know how they really are. Our eye kind of tricks our mind to believe: "That’s how a wave crashes." But when our mind slows down the structures that are created, they’re totally illogical. 

PM: It also makes me think of translation.

MF: Yes.

PM: And the forms or symbols you’re creating can have different meanings, maybe analogous to the way that the meanings of words can change, subjectively.

MF: Exactly — context is always a thing. And back to that idea of my doing things differently from the previous body of work, I wanted to have perhaps the most open subject matter that I could possibly think of. The most universal: Everybody’s seen the sun set, the sun rise out of the water. Ocean, land, sand — these are things that, everywhere around the world, offer a similar experience, a similar relationship. They’re not specific, per se.

PM: Jasper Johns used supremely familiar images like the target, even the American flag. I’m wondering if Johns has been an important figure for you.

MF: You can’t say he’s not, but he’s not someone I’ve thought that much about. It’s interesting, because the target is such an iconographic work, and I’m more drawn to the targets of Kenneth Noland, which came five to ten years later. They both have this canvas-as-object thing. I think the reason I like Noland more than I do Johns, is that Noland has an openness to him; he shedded art history to create art history. [His works are] free from the weight that Johns hammered into his, even though Johns was still breaking all the rules. 

PM: It’s open in the way that he’s not hiding something, as much as maybe Johns had been.

MF: Right, and ironically, it’s dependent upon the structure of the canvas, the shape of the inside — so there’s this back-and-forth between painting and painted.

Matthew F Fisher, Robber's Cape, 2016 Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 25 inches Private collection, Amagansett, NY Courtesy of Taymour Grahne Gallery and the artist

PM: I’d like to ask you about the drawings, your works on paper. There’s an interview on your website, where you talk about your outdoor scenes as being specifically “not interior.” I was thinking of your works on paper as somehow being interior. That may be because of some effect of their framing, or their size. 

MF: That’s interesting, because with the drawings — and I don’t know why this started — but I feel it necessary to draw a square within the piece of paper before I even begin the first mark; there’s kind of a framing element. 

Working on some works on paper from here, I’m realizing the importance of drawing, for me, having less rigor, and that my relationship to the material is different. Like, if I screw something up, I just cut it out and glue a new piece of paper on it. Whereas in painting, I have less flexibility in the materials. With drawing, I’m free to do anything I want. The drawings (they’re black and white, sumi ink on paper) allow me to focus on the value of the piece, the black and white gradations, and I’m remembering how important that. I don’t think of that as much in painting because there’s color (which didn’t really answer your question). There are a few that were [exhibited] at Ampersand that I’m thinking of. They have a wave that goes along the bottom that kind of crashes on the edge — I always saw this water kind of sloshing inside of a basin.

PM: There’s a playfulness in those drawings, even though they’re kind of severe in their values. The playfulness is there in the aspect of hand-made. There are little cutout pieces...

MF: Those pieces are all hand-punched, hand-glued, and even the paper is sometimes found in the street. Sometimes, there’s a history already built into it. And the drawings can sometimes kick around for months and develop their own history in that sense, too. As I’m working on them, I’ll sometimes make little notations on the backs of them: miniscule things that just happened that would otherwise be forever forgotten. I was looking at the back of one a couple of weeks ago, and I’d just made a notation about how my dad said that he heard thunder. A few minutes later it rained. It was just a fleeting moment in reality that I’d never remember, but it struck me in that instant, so I wrote it down. They all kind of have a personal history to them. Some of the drawings I’ve been working on down here were started in Northern California and worked on in L.A. They travel where the paintings began. The painting studio is much more of a laboratory where things happen in a distilled environment. I’m not interested in “plein air,” or even painting from life. I’m more interested in taking from life.

Matthew F Fisher, The Want of Nothing, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 25 inches, Private collection, Short Hills, NJ

PM: It’s so much less intellectual that way.

MF: (Laughing) I’m pretty unintellectual. I mean, I am… it’s funny, I’m 41 years old and, thinking about this art for the last 17 years, I’ve come to a realization throughout practice, through the making of the work, that although it’s not very deep at first, the more you think about it becomes much deeper.

PM: I meant that word in the negative sense that, maybe someone like de Chirico meant it in his later years when he’d rail against artists being too intellectual, too cerebral and bookish or whatever. 

MF: Right. I think what de Chirico did, and what I also want to do (and, when younger artists say this, most teachers should say “that’s bullshit”) is to create a work that is so open that you know exactly what you did. And I think Guston did this, which adds to the power of those later pieces. Of course they’re about the Ku Klux Klan, but they’re also about him just smoking cigarettes. You create this work that’s so open that you almost reflect all responsibility back to the viewer, and I think that allows the viewer to go deep. (You could easily go too deep.) When it’s that open, when it’s that free for different readings — you know, just a man smoking a cigarette in a studio (and we all know the demons that Guston had) — it allows for so much more of an interesting, personal reading. And if somebody goes intellectual on the work, I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I’d take it as a compliment. Someone took all that time to really research it, think about it and make comparisons. Even though I’m not thinking about it that way, I accept that the work has the ability to go there. I want it to go there, but I also want it to be, like, just a beach scene. I’m kind of having my cake and eating it too. To be as open as possible, so that people can just go with it. Or not go with it... 

PM: And that’s in the juxtaposition and the clarity of those images in relation to one another. And that Guston example is great, because it’s not like those klansmen in the paintings are on fire or whatever. 

MF: And they’re not even any specific klansmen. In fact, they’re all klansmen, in fact they're all people in a way. And it’s unfortunately very relevant today: What would it be like to hate all day, and what would you do when you’re not hating? Drive a car, paint a paintings, smoke a cigarette. A friend of mine asked me recently, “what would it be like to live in 1968?” And in some ways I feel like we might be there today. 

PM: Pretty soon it’ll be coming up on fifty years. I was thinking about that looking at the Situationist manifestos and all that.

MF: Yeah, and it’s funny, you saying that word makes me think that we’ve got to bring the manifesto back. If only to make the point that "this is what we believe in."

PM: When I was looking at those like ten years ago, a lot of it seemed much more radical and extreme.

MF: And I think that they need a radical and extreme time to make sense.

Matthew F Fisher, Myth, Ritual, and Religion, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, 19 x 15 inches, Private collection, Montauk, NY, courtesy of the artist

PM: To take us back to California, I’m curious about how being there will affect your work. Do you have a studio? 

MF: Having lived in New York since grad school, there’s a deep sense of New York (even though the imagery might not necessarily reflect it), and I feel that that comes across in the fact that they’re very dense paintings — they’re heavy, there’s a weight to how they’re made that’s very East-Coast. If you look at your East Coast Minimalists, you’ve got Richard Sera, Carl Andre — people using heavy construction materials like steel and wood beams. Then the West Coast Minimalists — Robert Irvine and James Turrell, people who experimented much more with light. I’m curious to see how that comes into the work. Will it stay the same, or does that [light] start to creep in, and at what point and how? 

I think being in L.A., the sunshine and the light are going to come through. And strictly on a nerd level, there’s an acrylic paint company out in Los Angeles called Nova Paints. My friend Ben Sanders turned me onto them and I bought a few tubes last year and as I was using it, I realized that the color pallette of Los Angeles acrylic painters goes through Nova Paints. I’m thinking of Brian Calvin and Ben Sanders himself. And on the East Coast, Golden Paints has the monopoly, so I’m curious to see how using Nova Paints might change the end product and image.

I’m so happy to be here at this time. I’ve never been more confident in how I make paintings, never been more confident in what I paint. And now, to be put into a new environment, a new landscape, a new everything... I don’t think those things will change, they’ll definitely influence and affect what I do. That’s what art’s about: responding. 

PM: I’m staring at The East on your website, thinking of your comment about the “weight” of the East Coast. Even though these hues are light and airy, that huge mass of whatever that is (a little bubble that has been magnified?)... I mean, that’s just so heavy.

MF: I was fortunate enough to see my paintings in a bright-white art fair last year, in this all-white booth, and these are just like dark-matter nuggets stuck to the wall. There’s just a heaviness to them. When they’re all just standing next to each other in the studio, you don’t sense it but, when they get some space between them, you really feel like all the light gets sucked in. When I think of those East Coast and West Coast Minimalists, I’m curious to see how the work will be affected.

PM: Me too. Thanks so much for taking the time, Matt. WM 

Paul Maziar

Paul Maziar is a Portland based writer, curator, and small-press editor. His first pamphlet of poems, Little Advantages, was published in 2013, and was followed by three others. His first full-length poetry collection, Opening Night, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX [books]. Paul's art writings can be read at artcritical, ArtsWatch, and his blog The Works; and certain of his poems can be read at the Brooklyn Rail, and Across The Margin.

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