There’s something archetypical and everlasting about the medium of glass (it’s been around since 3500 BC), and those qualities strike you first when looking at paintings by Dan’s Papers cover artist Janet Fish. We can understand why Fish used to paint images of glass bottles and vases in her early work (i.e. “Wine and Cheese Glasses,” 1975) when she was first developing her special style. This week’s cover contains Fish’s signature glass, but adds flowers (roses) and Russian dolls.
The unique aspects of glass are many; some are obvious, some not. For example, its ability to reflect light is certainly one Fish has effectively incorporated. Her depiction of old pieces from yesteryear also evoke nostalgia, even though glass signifies a modernist approach in contemporary design and architecture. Glass also recalls various practical purposes, which make it a pervasive part of our lives: its use in eyeglasses, containers and windows, to name a few. Our own subjective connection to glass may also play a part in our penchant for Fish’s art, including the glass we collect from local beaches, weathered and smooth, suggesting stories we can only imagine.
When we look at Fish’s still lives of glass (or her other subjects like fruit and flowers), we are immediately engaged; we can’t help but imagine who owned such glassware, although we know they may be the artist’s. Thus, the glass objects become the starting point for a scenario in our heads. Certainly, we are engaged by the aesthetics of the pieces as well: their complex composition, muted color and reflecting light.
While these formal elements are quite extraordinary, we begin to notice Fish’s contradictions: both the fragility and strength of the glass; the organized yet subtle spontaneous images (tiny lollipops are placed in one painting, almost as an afterthought); freedom and containment. Consider that most of Fish’s objects are positioned next to each other, but their liberation is apparent, as if they could fly away at any minute. Even so, two works particularly reinforce the opposite idea with a package of wrapped fruit and an image of bananas that are only half-wrapped. It’s as if the fruit were fighting to get out of their plastic holdings. Another image is especially provocative. A bottle of olives is encased in liquid, yet it too may be entrapped, just like the animal parts found in Damien Hirst’s work where the liquid is formaldehyde.
While Fish’s aesthetics are strictly her own, she had many sources of inspiration, like her family (her mother, Florence Whistler Fish, was a sculptor and potter, and her grandfather, Clark Voorhees, was an American impressionist painter). We can also look to her education as a likely motivation; she was one of the first women artists to obtain her MFA from Yale where her fellow classmates included Chuck Close, Nancy Graves and Brice Marden. Yale instructor Josef Albers’ color course no doubt also added to her expertise.
Yet Fish was also influenced by the then-dominant New York School of Abstract Expressionists as were other emerging artists in the 1950s. According to art historians, such influence “reflects the aesthetic process of the action painter, in such characteristics as ‘all-over’ composition and painterly style,” even though Fish and others did not necessarily create abstract imagery and may not agree with this assessment. Conversely, however, Fish has stated that her still life genre offers the best possibility for painters to include both realism and abstractions. This appears true; at first glance her works seem representational. Yet there’s a glint of magic and mystery that prevails, pushing her objects into another realm.
It’s often said that Alex Katz inspired Fish as well; this critic can understand that comparison although Katz does figurative works. Both artists use line in a delicate and definitive way to evoke distinctive demeanors of their objects.
No matter what Fish’s inspirations have been, the work stands on its own.
Ms. Fish is represented by DC Moore Gallery in New York: 212-247-2111.
ADDITION: Last week’s “Honoring the Artist” featured Pamela Topham who will be in a group show at Ashawagh Hall, opening February 11. Her website is www. pamelatopham.com