The Michelangelo of Suburbia

Article excerpt

"Erich Fischl: Fallen" by James Romaine, in Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion (Summer 2003), 3307 Third Ave. West, Seattle, Wash. 98119.

Erich Fischl is one of a handful of artists who emerged during the 1980s "spearheading a return to figurative representation after the dominance of abstraction and conceptual art in previous decades," says Romaine, an art historian. Yet it was not just a return. Many viewers find Fischl's depictions of "the leisured suburban existence of the American middle class in all its physical and spiritual nakedness" unsettling. But this edginess, Romaine suggests, comes both from "a theme which appears in many of Fischl's works: the public exposure of the private," and the longing of his painted characters to return to "an Eden they cannot recreate."

Born in New York City in 1948, Fischl grew up in the Long Island suburbs with a salesman father and an alcoholic mother. "The permeating message of his childhood," says Romaine, was that "what happened in side the home, family, and individual was to be concealed from the world outside." This tension plays out in many of Fischl's paintings through figures that are literally naked--stripped, as Romaine puts it, "of the pretensions of society," but also suggesting, in the artist's own words, "the vulnerability of the human condition." But his juxtaposition of clothed and naked figures can sometimes explore uncomfortable areas of sexuality. In one of Fischl's more troubling works, Bad Boy (1981), a self-absorbed woman lies naked on a bed. Watching her, his back to the viewer, is the clothed young "bad boy" of the title. "But his transgression is unclear," says Romaine. Is it his presence? That behind his back we can also see his busy fingers rifling through her purse? Or something else? As is the case with many of Fischl's paintings, we get "only a fleeting glimpse of a larger, more complicated narrative. …