"I believe images are emotionally charged. Each image has a different kind of charge. You make use of the emotional quality of the image rather than what the image is." Urs Fisher
From Urs Fischer’s series of “Problem Paintings,” Glazed (2012) is a typically arresting work by one of contemporary art’s most protean and provocative figures. At once grotesque and humorous, destructive and creative, crude and sensitive, this is a gigantic portrait gone wrong: culled from a composite of three 1950s publicity stills, film stars’ polished headshots are disrupted and fractured by the intrusion of a vast cigarette butt. The actors are obscured, made anonymous. The cigarette butt, with its long appendage of untapped ash, sets off a wealth of associations. Like many other images from this series, it is an implicitly gendered object, carrying a wry and primal symbolism that can be traced across Fischer’s oeuvre: the men are obscured by cigarettes, nails, screws, or bananas, while the women are more often defaced by eggs or bisected fruit. Fischer, who trained as a photographer, has an eye for the intrinsic power of images. Today, however, he considers himself a sculptor: the cigarette’s detumescence and destruction of the portrait may also signify his attitude towards the monumental flatness of this aluminum silkscreen panel; the slick, illusory glamour of the mid-century silver screen is extinguished by the incursion of a real object’s blunt actuality. Both playful and dramatic, this jarring, large-scale juxtaposition exemplifies the unique spirit of Fischer’s work, succinctly capturing his gleeful fascination with the realms of disorder, disintegration and decay in the material world.
Cigarettes, lamps, candles, lighters, tables, chairs, fruit, vegetables: in his wide-ranging practice, Fischer employs a diverse but often recognisably quotidian vocabulary. Through a careful play of associations and scales, oscillating between macro and micro to eye-opening effect, he destabilises and recalibrates our conceptions of our physical surroundings. As he has said, “I just use stuff that’s around me. And those objects, those domestic images, as you call them, are made in human scale, so they can also be related to humans. They’re made by humans and for humans. They speak about us. And they are things you are bound to deal with” (U. Fischer, quoted in M. Gioni, “This is my Grandmother, She Makes Really Genius Cakes: An Interview with Urs Fischer,” in Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2010, p. 63). In Glazed, the cigarette is enshrined not as a modish fixture of Golden Age stardom but as a colossal and obstructive piece of burnt-out detritus, displacing the work’s ostensible subject. Much as in Sodbrennen (Heartburn) (2000-2004), which saw Fischer fill a mirrored box with accumulated cigarette butts, coffee and orange juice, the refuse of the studio is transmuted into the art object, defamiliarising both at once. Fischer is uninterested in cleanliness or polish, instead opening up new ideas in the cracks: whole new zones of meaning reside in that which is unfinished, throwaway and unexplored, and are exposed by his keen sense for the interfaces between real and symbolic objecthood.
Fischer is particularly preoccupied with the passage of time as registered by objects. “Wax that melts in itself creates a more beautiful perfection than you can create,” he says. “There is a perfection in the movement. The way food decomposes is predictable. It’s a predictable process: it always rots in the same way. You’re actually in control when you let nature do its thing” (U. Fischer, quoted in ibid., p. 61). As Fischer’s candles melt, some even replicating the artist in lifesize form, and his vegetables act as the rotting foundation for a wall or are screwed together in absurd coitus, we are reminded of the vanitas still life tradition made real. Rather than expressing a memento mori message by preserving fruit and flowers in paint, Fischer confronts us with the physical facts of entropy and decomposition. Far from morbid, however, his tone is of irreverence, even enthusiasm, in the face of the ravages of time. “Life is one long decay, no? There’s a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city” (U. Fischer, quoted in D. Solway, “Studio Visit: Urs Fischer,” W Magazine, April 2012).
In Glazed we are presented with a relic of time having already passed; through its immense, unfamiliar scale, the cigarette butt faces us with a peculiar magnificence, sublime in its power. Somehow the cigarette has become more human than the portrait, which is all but forgotten. For all the visual shock of the spectacle he has created, Fischer’s “Problem Painting” is triumphant in its carnivalesque irresolution. Like the Surrealists’ chance-based “exquisite corpse,” whereby different elements assembled blind to one another could reveal new and previously inconceivable composite realities, the non-sequitur hits us with a revitalizing comic jolt. Chaotic, disconcerting and exciting, the work is a celebration of the spirit we conjure forth from the objects around us. “I’m interested in finding different ways of being an author. And I am not talking about delegating part of the production or working with other people. It is more about letting materials and images take on their own life. The work has its own reality, and you are in service of it” (U. Fischer, quoted in M. Gioni, “This is my Grandmother, She Makes Really Genius Cakes: An Interview with Urs Fischer,” in Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2010, p. 61).