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The Art of Janet Fish

October 2, 2009 - January 17, 2010

 

For over 40 years, the large, object-filled paintings of Janet Fish (b. 1938) have been understandably admired for their profound realism. Her mastery for creating the transparent glint of glass, the reflective sheen of silver, the physicality of cloth and the fleshy surfaces of fruit and flora is virtually unmatched by any of her contemporaries. On closer inspection, however, one sees that her brushstrokes are more gestural and the application of oil is more painterly than might be expected of a "realist" painter. In fact, Fish began her painting studies at Yale University during the height of popularity for abstract expressionism. Consequently, large-scale compositions, visible brushstrokes and juicy surfaces are part of her painting DNA. Fish has taken these abstract elements and co-mingled them with a realist's perspective to create a hybrid that satisfies her attraction to the two diverse approaches. (right: Janet Fish, Coffee Cake. 2003, 50 x 50 inches, oil)

During the 1960s and early '70s, Fish focused on still life painting. She created representational paintings of commonplace objects such as plastic-wrapped fruit, jars of honey and glass dishes set on table tops, enlarging them to completely fill her large-scale compositions. Fish, however, quickly realized that the items that populated her works were of little importance. She says: "When people look at realist paintings, they focus on the objects, which I don't think are the subject at all. I think the object is one of the tools, like the paint and the brush. The real subject is the light, movement and color, and echoes of the objects in one's mind. All those things are part of what I use to make the painting."

Light, movement and color are the core elements in Fish's still life paintings. Initially, her focus was limited to the area in and around her studio environment -- most often table tops seen at close range or table tops set against windows, all filled with a variety of diverse objects. During the 1970s, Fish's subject matter seems to move from the table to the larger environment in which the table existed. Her paintings become more intricate and colorful, and she incorporates landscapes and human figures with a seemingly endless variety of still life objects. This expansion of the background in her still life paintings is most likely a result of her decision to spend summers outside of New York City. Basically a lifelong studio painter, Fish began to paint plein-air, capturing color, light and scenes that do not exist in the studio.

Arguably the best-known still life painters remain the 17th-century Dutch artists whose vanitas (vanity) paintings were reminders of the impermanence of life. Although there are frequently narrative connotations in Fish's works, her objects usually bear no real meaning other than that she found them a perfect combination, either because of their color, shape, texture or size. In fact, often the objects seem almost chosen because they appear incongruous. It is the incompatibility of the items (diverse textures, jarring colors and patterns, the juxtaposition of negative and positive shapes, and the capriciousness of light) that creates the movement permeating every inch of a Fish painting. This overall design/movement of her compositions is similar to that found in tapestries.

While Fish's work is distinguished by her talent for realistic representation, her capacity as a colorist and her sophisticated sense of composition, it is her remarkable ability to define the elusive quality of light that is most extraordinary. For example, compare the soft morning light, pale colors and delicate shadows found in the 2003 painting Coffee Cake with the harsher indoor light that illuminates color and form with an artificial sparkle and crispness seen in the 2006 oil Lorna and Jane. Considering how effectively Fish captures the intangible nature of light in its many manifestations, it might be more accurate to call her a painter of light rather than a still life painter. The artist has said of the objects in her paintings: "They're all held together, I think, in light, one way or another."

 

(above: Janet Fish, Meredith's Flowers, 2004, 50 x 80 inches, oil)

This exhibition was organized by the Naples Museum of Art in cooperation with DC Moore Gallery, New York City.

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