Scenes from the American West, 1990
36 x 40 1/2 in.
Signed & numbered 1/50
Museum purchase made possible by
the 2012 Collectors Circle
Essay by guest writer, Todd Giles, PhD
Associate Professor of English at MSU Texas
“My work is an allegory of our interaction with the stuff we call the world, it is a metaphor for our finding our way. I see myself more as an observer than anything else, I just see all this stuff and point to it.”—Vernon Fisher
Vernon Fisher is a Fort Worth-based artist of international repute who has taught at both Austin College in Sherman and UNT in Denton. He is most well-known for his large “blackboard paintings” that resemble schoolhouse chalkboards, complete with leftover traces of chalked scribbles, notations and scientific drawings, as if a classroom lecture has just ended. Like fellow Texan Robert Rauschenberg, Fisher is a painter, sculptor, instillation artist and printmaker. And, like his predecessor, he is an astute observer of what it means to be an American in the age of pop culture and media blitz (see Rauschenberg’s 1974 collage, Mule, also in the WFMA’s permanent collection).
As a postmodern pastiche of styles and techniques, Fisher’s work can be read as an amalgamation of and moving forward from the found objects of Duchamp’s Dadaism, the neo-Dadaism of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and the Pop Art of Ed Ruscha, whose work on the American West often combines texts and images. Playing off of the work of his predecessors, Fisher’s wholly unique artworks are at one and the same time simple yet complex, familiar yet disconcerting, unusual yet mundane.
Similar to other works in the WFMA’s permanent collection (Johns’ Fool’s House, for example, or Lee Krasner’s Embrace), Fisher’s Scenes from the American West is, for lack of a better word, a translation of one of his earlier mixed-media works into the medium of printmaking. The original iteration of Scenes from the American West (1986) is an approximately six foot by six foot combine in the angularly cut-out shape of Mickey Mouse’s head that is composed of blackboard slating with portions of its cross-hatched wood undergirding exposed. Atop the slating, the work includes oil paint, paintstick, and a hand-rendered image painted from a photograph of a drained-out swimming pool at a roadside motel in Fort Stockton in southwest Texas. The primary difference between the earlier work and the screenprint, other than their size, is that the original also has a physical depth; it comes 3 ½ inches out from the wall, casting an interesting shadow similar to Donald Judd’s three-dimensional industrial wall sculptures, creating a kind a halo around Mickey.
Much of Fisher’s work can leave us slightly frustrated in our attempts to do precisely what the work itself pushes back against—finding meaning. His metaphors often remain stubbornly and intentionally allusive due his juxtaposition of seemingly disparate images, styles, and media. In an interview with curator Michael Auping, Fisher referred to the blackboards in particular as analogous to the “tentative and fluid quality of the mind at work.” The mind as blackboard, with all its false starts, erasures, sketches, connections, and traces of earlier thoughts and writings; a very apt analogy indeed.
Not only can Fisher’s blackboards be read as an analogy for the mind at work, they also operate nostalgically, acting as a springboard back to memories of our own school-day childhoods. The same with Fisher’s hand-painted monochromatic “photographs,” which give the illusion that we are looking at old washed-out pictures recalling summertime childhood road trips taken with our families across the American West. Appearing throughout much of his work, these images seem to be randomly floating atop the artworks they adorn like softened floating visual memories of times gone by.
A close reading of the print, Scenes from the American West—however tenuous and subjective it might be—can only attempt to shed flashes of light on this allusive work. Although various iterations of Mickey Mouse appear at least two dozen times throughout Fisher’s work, this Mickey is the star of the show. His tongue, bright red, is rendered in a texture like broad brushstrokes, calling to mind Fisher’s earlier explorations with abstract art. Mickey’s lower lip appears to be taken from a black-and-white photograph of a wind-whipped lake. His eyes, as mentioned above, are depicted through a reference to the crosshatched undergirding in his paintings. This trestling effect, which is a fairly common design element in Fisher’s work, speaks back to the fact that the only painting in Fisher’s childhood home in Fort Worth was of the trestle bridge crossing the nearby Brazos River before it was dammed and turned into a middle-class haven of lakeside leisure.
Finally, the blackboard-like background itself is covered with a series of geometrical diagrams, half-worked-out mathematical equations, drawings of Saturn, an empty water pitcher, and spirals of what appear to be some kind of wire or tubing. The pitcher itself is interesting in that one of the major images we see throughout Fisher’s work is water, something always in short supply in the American West, as we see in the abandoned swimming pool. Some of the scribbles and sketches on the blackboard are fresh, while others are partially erased, palimpsestically showing through as half-legible traces from the past.
The image of the roadside motel swimming pool, not to mention Mickey Mouse himself, draws on our collective consciousness of what, at least to a certain segment of the American population, was thought of as the heyday of the post-war era—a time of wholesome (though unrealistically racially monochromatic) television shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Mickey Mouse Club—only here, both the pool (and its photo) have been drained, washed out; likewise, Mickey’s undergirding exposes the fragile nature of our TV-worshiping celebrity culture.
Going back to the print’s title, one might say that the trestling and the photographic image highlight thefact that the artwork, like Mickey Mouse and our conceptions of the American West, are in fact conceptual constructs that—through the lens of rose-colored nostalgia—expose the fragility of our lost post-war greatness and call into question the directions we’ve taken in our quest for attaining the American Dream as a westering nation with nowhere else to physically go and no way to get there. As Fisher says in the epigraph above, “My work is an allegory of our interaction with the stuff we call the world, it is a metaphor for our finding our way. I see myself more as an observer than anything else, I just see all this stuff and point to it.” Likewise, as this newly introduced fan of Fisher’s work gave as a caveat above, the work under discussion is intentionally allusive, calling on our subjectivity to unpack its meaning. Whether we read Fisher’s Scenes from the American West as a sentimental throwback to earlier times or as an evocative critique of American culture, what we can all agree on is that the work at one and the same time calls us hither and pushes us away, which is one of the hallmarks of great art.
Colpitt, Frances. Vernon Fisher. UT Press, 2010.
Davies, Hugh M. and Madeleine Grynsztejn. Vernon Fisher. La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, 1989.
Available in the Museum Gift Shop
Words and Pictures: Vernon Fisher, 1989-2019, by Tracee W. Robertson. Published by University of North Texas Libraries, 2019 in association with an exhibition of the same title, organized by the UNT College of Visual Arts and Design.
Scenes from the American West from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas