Director’s Exhibition Tour: “Chicken Joke”

Chicken Joke by Vernon Fissher
“Chicken Joke,” 2000, acrylic on canvas; Courtesy the artist. 

In my experience of looking at Vernon Fisher’s complex art, I have found it helpful to begin by asking myself, what do I see? In this painting, titled Chicken Joke, I see a woman speaking and a man expressing emotion. I see hens and swirly lines. I see a part of Mickey Mouse. I see text that reads like the disappointing punch line to the familiar joke, “why did the chicken cross the road?” 

When MSU honors students looked at this painting earlier this year, they noticed the word ‘to’ repeats in the typewriter-style text at the bottom of the canvas, like a typo or a stutter. When I say these words as I see them, I can feel this repetition is also like trying to find the words or, less optimistically, like persuading or explaining using deceptive or shallow reasoning. That small detail in this large painting (6 x 8 feet) gives me a sense of suspicion.  

Mickey’s feet make me think of the criticism of something being ‘mickey mouse’ or of inferior quality. They float above the woman’s head, like a thought-bubble. The swirly lines feel like silliness or dizziness.  I recognize the scene as a movie still, so I expect for some viewers there is meaning in the film choice, in this particular scene, and in the actors’ public personas. I am not familiar with these, but it is not necessary to know all the references and symbols present here to let Fisher’s narrative artworks lead me in a story about what life feels like.  

In this painting’s visual language, I notice Fisher’s use of harmony, balance, and rhythm. I see a swirl shape in the shadows on the buttons of Mickey’s shorts, so this shape repeats and makes a large swirl or arc from the top to the bottom of the canvas. Other marks float rhythmically across the surface, separate from or indifferent to the other symbols. In Fisher’s work, these elements relieve my mind of understanding his complex symbols and leave me with a feeling of peace. 

Words and Pictures: Vernon Fisher “Chicken Joke,” 2000, acrylic on canvas; Courtesy the artist. 

To read more Director’s Tours of Words and Pictures: Vernon Fisher, click the link below.