Opening Up His Files

Going crazy one metalhead neighbor at a time: Vernon Fisher's When You Lose Your Mind.
Museum of Fine Arts

Miniature golf courses rank right up there with parking lot carnivals in the "antithesis of fun" department. Whacking golf balls into the pouch of a decaying concrete kangaroo, despite the promise of "wholesome family fun," emanates a sort of seedy melancholia. The whole experience reeks of forced joviality. Texas artist Vernon Fisher has photographed the sad ¨ber-kitsch of Galveston's defunct Gooney Golf and has incorporated the images into larger thematic works that form the nucleus of "Vernon Fisher's File 00," curated by Valerie Loupe Olsen at Museum of Fine Arts's Glassell School of Art.

The exhibition presents the Gooney Golf photographs with numerous other images Fisher has amassed for his extensive files. Less than 1 percent of the total images are on display (and Fisher adds to them on a nearly daily basis). The files house an evocative visual vocabulary, from staged photographs to Nancy comic strips, which act as source materials for Fisher's paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations.

The visuals peg Fisher as a child of the '50s with all the period's contradictory imagery: Mickey and Goofy, '57 Chevys and atomic bombs; the nuclear family meets nuclear horror. Yet other sensibilities and themes emerge: Texas is accounted for with pictures of wide-open desert spaces, empty trailer-park swimming pools and a Dairy Queen sign that reads, "God Bless Anita Bryant." Fisher displays a boyish gee-whiz optimism with his "Popular Science" file and its clippings of geodesic domes, optical illusions and weather balloons.


"Vernon Fisher's File 00"

is on view through March 5 at the Glassell School of Art, 5101 Montrose,


Focusing on seven works from 1979 to 2000, the show would appear to be a mini-retrospective of Fisher's work while simultaneously linking it to some of the photographic images that inspired it. Keep in mind that it's time for FotoFest 2000, Houston's biennial photography extravaganza, and the rush is on to pull together shows of anything and everything "photo-ish." Showing photographic source materials with the finished work is a valid premise, but the show feels scraped together from whatever local collectors and Fisher's gallery were willing to lend. Newer works, such as Kosha from the "Zombie" series and Forms, don't have any obvious links to the source works. The exhibition is a bit wobbly in fulfilling its objective, but its components are nonetheless appealing.

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Fisher is a conceptual artist who frequently overlays his pop-culturally resonant images with text, usually short stories culled from daily life. The resulting works are bilingual, containing both a written and a pictorial language. The images are painted directly onto canvas from projections, to keep their photographic quality intact. The source images displayed on each side of the gallery provide evidence of his artistic process.

Fisher began creating text on the surface of his works with a laborious low-tech procedure. He placed raised letter stencils underneath his paintings and then sanded over the top of the letters, wearing away the surface until letter-shaped holes appeared (84 Sparrows, 1979). Your eye flickers between reading the story in the negative space of the letters and looking at the positive space of the painted image. In later paintings (When You Lose Your Mind, 1991) Fisher projects and meticulously paints a paragraph of text over the surface. More recent pieces, such as Rampaging Bikers (1999), have sentence fragments, handwritten notes and corrections randomly placed, mimicking writers' first drafts Fisher found in the Paris Review.

Fisher has begun to use Photoshop to manipulate text and image before it is projected. This enables the composition of Rampaging Bikers to be more fluid and complex than earlier pieces. In Forms (2000) a story is applied directly to the wall in vinyl transfer letters and the text is the image, a tactic used in many of his installations. Conceptually his stories have become increasingly abstract, and the once direct relationships between the stories and images are also more oblique.

A scene from the Gooney Golf landscape appears in When You Lose Your Mind. It is airbrushed in an unsettling acidic orange monochrome, transforming schlock nostalgia into foreboding. Fisher then overlays other visuals: A black line drawing is culled from the beyond-banal comic strip Nancy; Sluggo takes a punch in the face from an automatic boxing glove. Also floating on the surface is the iconic Nagasaki atomic mushroom cloud, rendered in blood-red and white, a pictograph for mass destruction and cold-war values. (Incidentally, the patchwork nature of the atomic cloud employs a favorite Fisher technique, one inspired by the aesthetics of cheap auto-body repairs in which dented car surfaces are spackled with Bondo and left rough and unfinished.) Finally, his story, "When You Lose Your Mind," is carefully lettered over the surface of the painting:

"Losing your mind is not the same as misplacing something. It is more like the slow surrender of territory, losing it a step at a time, in increments. A kind of resettlement takes place -- you have new neighbors, so to speak. Neural pathways are altered, new paths worn in the grass by people who don't keep up their lawn, who park their beat-up Econoline in the front yard and piss in the street. Who borrow things and don't return them. You try to be accommodating, but it isn't easy. They party day and night with their biker friends, blast Megadeth non-stop from the stereo and laugh at your complaints. Chill out, Dude, they say. Everyone is Dude, or man. They install a refrigerator on their front porch and crushed beer cans fill their yard and spill over into yours. Their children break your windows (accidentally, of course), leave their bicycles in your driveway, copulate in the back seat of your Volvo. During the course of the day you find yourself in a murderous rage. Who are these people?"

Taken all together, Fisher creates a particularly Texan analogy for what would colloquially be described as "goin' crazy." The loss of control caused by the onslaught of redneck metalhead neighbors from hell creates a visceral metaphor for escalating neurosis.

Rampaging Bikers appropriates additional Gooney Golf imagery, this time a comic, ominous octopus. A leather-jacketed Marlon Brando looming in the corner is a vintage symbol of "angry youth" as the motorcycle gang leader from The Wild One. Here, Fisher uses less "tidy" narrative fragments as well as crossed-out words, although even the corrections are slickly rendered. Images of desolate landscapes obscure parts of the text. The handwriting scrawl reads: "Ripley says, 'She'll breed, you'll die!' " Pop-cultural allusion to Alien III, or flash of male reproductive angst?

Kosha is from the "Zombie" series of paintings, two of which will be included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. The "Zombies" are initially serious abstract paintings about surface and color. You're initially drawn to Kosha's thick, gloopy layers of buttery yellow and bluish-black enamel, and then you notice four tiny fake flies scattered on and around the painting. They're cast from dead ones found in Fisher's studio windows. The bodies are painstakingly hand-painted with tiny fiberglass wings and wire feet are added. Fisher is an anal guy.

The flies alter the nature of the paintings, which cease to be paintings and become witty symbols of paintings. The most obvious reading of the "Zombie" series is that Fisher is attempting to reanimate the dead corpse of painting for himself. You get a sense that the conceptual Fisher is trying to be seduced by the act of painting but just can't keep the faith. He has to comment on it. It's like someone who goes to Mass because he loves the ritual and theater of Catholicism, but just can't bring to himself to wholeheartedly believe the underlying tenets.

Fisher has a deft and provocative touch with objects, images and observations. When the work is less effective, the problem lies in the perhaps too carefully crafted nature of the work. He exercises a great deal of control in creating and presenting his images and objects, and sometimes that control is at odds with the allusive and nonspecific conceptual intent of the work. You're drawn in by the stories or resonant images, but sometimes the work stops you before you get to where you want to be. It's like they've been edited one too many times. The pieces can become so polished, formally and conceptually, that their impact is blunted.

You want to say, "Loosen up a little, willya?"

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