Artist Profile: Janet Fish


Janet Fish is a contemporary realist painter and printmaker who was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1938, and raised on the island of Bermuda. Her grandfather, Clark Voorhees, was an American Impressionist painter who inspired Janet. Her father was an art history teacher, and her mother, Florence Whistler Fish, a sculptor and potter. She went to Skowhegan Summer School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and studied sculpture and printmaking at Smith College in Massachusetts, and graduated from Smith in 1960. She then went on to Yale University School of Art and Architecture in Connecticut, where she received her B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) degrees in 1963. (She was one of the first women artists to receive her MFA from Yale.) At Yale some of her classmates included Rackstraw Downes, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves and Brice Marden.
She is best known for her still life paintings, but also sometimes includes figures and landscapes in her work. Her richly colored paintings and prints are virtuoso performances of painting and printmaking. At Yale she took Josef Albers' color course, The Interaction of Color, which was later made into a book which has influenced generations of artists. The generation of young artists who came of age in the 1950's were influenced by the then dominant New York School of Abstract Expressionists, including Willem de Kooning and others. Even though many painters of this generation turned to figurative painting, their work still reflects the aesthetic process of the action painters, in such characteristics as "all-over" composition and painterly style. Thus, their figurative imagery is schooled in the formalism of modernism, that is, abstract form and pictorial movement underlies their imagery. There were also certain figurative painters who influenced the young representational artists, such as Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz, who particularly influenced Fish.
As a student at Yale, her realistic approach was not always encouraged, except by Alex Katz, who told her to just go outside and paint the landscape. This would be in sharp contrast to the rigorous intellectualism often seen in prestigious university art programs, where figurative painting may be presented as inferior to abstract or conceptual work. Feeling that the work of the Abstract Expressionists had little personal meaning for her, she was also influenced by the work of California painters David Park and Richard Diebenkorn, whose work offered perhaps a fresh-air approach to painting. After she graduated from Yale, she hoped to teach art at the college level, but was discouraged by the male faculty, who suggested she apply to teach at a girls' school. She moved to New York and held an assortment of odd jobs, but when she began showing her work there, it was an immediate success. She became part of the New York art social scene, meeting sculptor Louise Nevelson and others in the art world.
Since then, she has shown her work in many major art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, and at many venues around the world. She has also won fellowships and awards, including American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, 1994, and a MacDowell Fellowships in 1968, 1968 and 1972. Her work has been published in several books - The Prints of Janet Fish, by Linda Konheim Kramer, Janet Fish by Garret Henry, and Janet Fish: Paintings by Vincent Katz. She is currently represented by D.C. Moore Gallery in New York City, and divides her time between her Soho loft and her farmhouse in Vermont. Her paintings reflect her indoor and outdoor domestic life, often containing still life objects from her collections of glassware and other objects.
The genres of still life and domestic interiors have sometimes been perceived as women's artistic province, such as in the work of female painters Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, although they have also been explored by a number of male artists, including Cezanne, Bonnard, Chardin, and others. Paintings of mothers and children are also often associated with women artists. Historically, still life has often been associated with various metaphysical concerns, such as the vanitas still lifes of the 17th century, which contained visual symbols of the fleeting quality of life and the foolishness of vanity. Even in modern times, still life has presented opportunities for artists to create a visual equivalent of states of being, for instance in the carefully constructed still lifes of Cezanne. In his work, the process of building up the forms and the image over long periods of time brings the dimension of time to his images.
Certainly there are many contemporary painters of "simple," colorful still lifes, which offer a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and nothing more, and on the surface Janet Fish appears to be one of these. Her early paintings of clear glassware, sometimes filled with water, offered transparency and reflection. Over the years, her still lifes have become more and more baroque in their complexity and powerful in their pictorial movement around the canvas. She has described her process as a dance involving her, the objects, the painting and the sensations of the painting
(www.tandempress.wisc.edu/tandem/gallery/fish/fish.htm). Her colors have also become increasingly saturated and intense, however finely tuned are their harmonies and relationships. The intricate and precise variable shapes of her colors are also painterly, which provides a tension of duality in her work. I can't help but be reminded of 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, the ones of infinitely complex scenes made up of tiny beads of color, and laborious as they may be to create, appear effortless and self-evident. There is the sense that every tiny color spot is in precisely the right place, in relation to the thousands of others. Fish is separated from other colorful still life painters by her mastery of formal elements - color relationships, light, composition and space. Though it seems that her work is about and on the surface, there is a mystery created by the sheer fact of its complexity and intricacy; like Cezanne, her work is perhaps about the attempt at perfection, and part of its power lies in the sheer amazement of her virtuosity. Her brushstrokes also, though seemingly realistically painted, seem closer to the Impressionist use of broken color to construct form and compositions.
Her work has been called photorealist, but she says that she is not a photorealist painter. (The photorealists, starting in the 1960's, worked from photographs that they "blew up" on the canvas in grids, and then copied minutely. An example of photorealism is the early work of painter Chuck Close.) Fish may work from photographs, but it appears that often her paintings are composites of many photographs, which she rearranges to form her compositions. Her paintings seem to have more of a painter's than a photographer's eye. She "paints what she sees," but in the course of painting seems to freely alter what is in front of her to suit the composition and meaning of the image, as well as to heighten the impressions of color and light. The abstract qualities of forms are dominant - the shapes, the reflections, the spaces through and between them, and the colors. Pretty objects are given the same importance in the images as common objects - a beautiful obsidian vase and some red cellophane. This reflects the artistic tradition of including objects from "high" and "low" culture. She says she welcomes beauty when it shows up. Fruit, flowers and glassware offer the viewer a sumptuous visual feast in every image, though sometimes her works are of unglamorous subjects, such as scaffolding on a building and a stack of plates. Her subjects really are color, light, visual movement and space, and the content of her work is perhaps life itself, seen in isolated moments of unusual juxtapositions and casual glances. It is the work of a true painter, who sees potential paintings many times throughout the average day. Her use of color is extraordinary - probably resulting from her color studies with Albers, and its high key perhaps comes from her Bermuda childhood. In many of her paintings, there are few areas of "neutral" colors - rather there are only intense, rich colors that nevertheless live together in harmony.
I read where she said that still life offers a painter the most visually innovative possibilities, and as a painter of still life, I agree with her. You can literally create your own world, even a world filled with combinations impossible in "real" life. You can put a far-off galaxy of stars, for example, next to a glass of lemonade. And this implies juxtapositions - poetic, Pop, metaphysical, and more. It also offers an opportunity to use the pure colors in your paint box - the bright reds, magentas, yellows and ultramarines. Those colors in a landscape would create a Fauvist image - and that has already been done! In a portrait, they would become garish. But in a still life, they can fit perfectly. The possibilities of composition in still life are endless, and forever interesting. In particular, Fish sometimes uses the vertical format for her still lifes, which I also use. I was influenced in this by the interiors of Bonnard and by Persian miniature paintings. This is a more contemporary version of the still life, which in past centuries was commonly in the horizontal format.
The foreground and background (positive and negative spaces) in her work are often shifting in space and importance, an attribute common to painting since the middle 19th century. This results in unusual scale and spatial effects, such as in the painting Dog Days, where a dog in the yard appears smaller than the pieces of watermelon on the table; it also offers a whimsical juxtaposition of unexpected and unnoticed casual life experiences. As a painter, I know how much fun it is to include these bon mots in "serious" art - these representations of contemporary life in our consumer culture - they are poignant, trivial and ubiquitous. We paint what we see around us, regardless of high or low cultural value. Fish's use of transparent objects, such as glass and cellophane, also provide a contemporary sense of atmospheric spatial depth, without the traditional use of chiaroscuro (light and shade) to depict volumes in space.

This combining of foreground and background also produces images which are both still life and landscape, in such works as Dog Days and Wild Geese. In the latter image, wild geese in flight dominate the top half of the painting, over an object-laden table. For me, this juxtaposition of wildlife and manmade nature is somehow poetic - and the movement of space forward and backward in the image adds to this simultaneity - it reverses the normal hierarchy of our experience. Here, in the painter's world, everything is equal, and everything is capable of creating in us the impulse to paint it. As poets arrange words to elicit contrasts, painters combine images to evoke meanings or atmospheres, often unexpected, that may have actually been seen in a Kodak moment outdoors. She has said that we see what we are looking for. Wild Geese is 60" x 60" - not a small painting; many of Fish's paintings are large, which is a different experience when viewed in person than a small still life, and has more of a "degree of difficulty" to paint.
As a painter of the stuff of our everyday lives, I can relate to the joy of painting humble (and even tacky) objects, that "do not belong" in "serious" art. Fish paints potato chips, cupcakes with "jimmies" on them, as artists have presented us with the humblest subjects for centuries, perhaps to try to get us to pay attention to what is around us. Look at this! Wow, have you ever stopped to look? Have you noticed your part of the universe today? There may also be an element of tongue-in-cheek, as in Pop art, in meticulously painted ephemeral objects, perhaps a variation on the vanitas theme (life doesn't last, nothing lasts). In this meticulousness, her work is similar to the painting of Rackstraw Downes, a painter born in England and based in the U.S., who is known for his landscapes. I remember hearing in the early 1970's that he and Fish were married and divorced, but I couldn't locate any references to this when doing research for this artist profile.

Fish's recent painting Balloons is another complex array of figure, landscape and still life, which she created by combining elements, rather than observing as an actual event. It consists of an outdoor celebration with food, balloons and children playing, and has an Impressionist feel in terms of the leisure and sunlight represented. Fish includes personal objects in her images, which offer an autobiographical element, such as a bouquet given to her present companion, painter Charles Parness, or items belonging to him, such as eyeglasses.
From the late 1960's, Fish has been affected by feminist ideas, which arrived in a big way at this time. At that time, few women taught in college art departments, and few women artists were represented in museums and exhibitions. Now, there are many serious female artists, and more female art professors; there has been discussion about whether women have a different aesthetic approach than men, or even a different way of making sense of experience. Certainly women have affected contemporary artistic thinking, in the materials they use and their attitudes and viewpoints. Female association with domesticity is not quite as heavy a burden today, though our historical experience with household chores and food preparation has influenced our lives, and consequently the art we make. Our role of tending to the small details, while men make the serious decisions, has hopefully lessened; we have been good at details and immediate tasks because that role was assigned to us, not because it is necessarily our nature. Fish said that the still life genre offers the greatest possibility for painters to include both realism and abstraction; her intricate reflections delineate both of these paths.
Ultimately, the level of formal excellence in her work, both paintings and silkscreen and lithograph prints, provides an affirmation of life, as well as the joy life can provide in the appreciation of the "little" things around us. I read where she experienced depression in her early life; this may be the reason her mature work has shown so brilliantly in color and quality, as she has also experienced the not-so-bright.

Visit this link to see more of Fish's work: www.janetfish.net
Nancy Doyle
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