With four solo shows in 2013, one of which was a huge retrospective at MOCA, Los Angeles (not to mention numerous group shows), the Swiss-born artist Urs Fischer is highly prolific. He is always pushing scale, the boundaries of every sculptural material imaginable, deadlines and, perhaps, taste.
One of the solo shows was Melodrama at Sadie Coles HQ (20 November 2013 – 08 January 2014), which appeared to be entirely made of clay, but wasn’t. Even The Guardian got it wrong in the November 25th, 2013 article, “Urs Fischer: the artist who’s made a giant rainbow rainstorm out of clay.” Whoever wrote the title was fooled, but the article’s writer, Adrian Searle was not. He correctly points out that the raindrops, some “as big as pears,” were painted plaster. According to Searle, Fischer and his assistants arrived at the space a couple of weeks before the opening with 30 tons of clay and began sculpting.
Searle described the scene this way:
Amid the perpetual shower, life-size clay figures lay about on clay furniture, rising from a rubble of leftover hands and arms and feet, and twists of discarded clay. Fischer has painted the sculptures, too. There are blue and rose torsos and breasts and bums, scrabbly multicoloured patches, figures that have had paint poured all over them. The paint and the damp clay don’t much like each other.
Fischer’s unique blend of Pop, Surrealist, and Dada influences are present, hence the melodrama. The overall results are too merry to be macabre, despite the cast off limbs and missing heads. Searle reported that a bit of the Galleon-Divan-Nude sculpture (that you can view below) fell off in front of his eyes. The debris on show was both fabricated and built in: unfired clay will not last.
It’s interesting that in the press release for the show Fischer’s work is compared to that of Martin Kippenberger, Franz West, and Fischli and Weiss. (It’s coincidental but interesting that CFile recently posted about Fischli and Weiss’ Suddenly An Overview at the 2013 Venice Biennale, which is an installation of unfired clay sculptures.) It makes sense: these artists work, or worked, in highly conceptual veins and their work might take any form. Especially in the case of Kippenberger and Fischli and Weiss; even if you are familiar with their work you might not be able to pick their pieces that are unknown to you out of a line up. One of the things that distinguishes Urs Fischer from this list of artist is that he seems particularly driven by sculptural concerns and materials (and transforming materials, hence the mix up in The Guardians’ title) and, rather than finding the material that fits his project, he finds a project for the materials he wants to work with. Another issue that might actually exclude him from this exalted company will be addressed later.
Urs Fischer at MOCA Grand Avenue and The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (April 4 – August 19, 2013) was a survey of work from the past two decades. In the images and videos below you will see pastel raindrops, houses made of bread, a classical sculptures cast in wax that become a giant candle, and different uses of raw clay.
MOCA Grand Avenue housed the retrospective. At The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Fischer mounted a huge collaborative project, Yes, that included 1,500 volunteers who made unfired clay sculptures in the weeks preceding the opening that took over the immense space. The video below that documents the process is worth watching. Installed among this work was Fischer’s Untitled (2001), which is based on Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Fischer recreated this sculpture as a monumental wax candle that was burned as the unfired clay sculptures that surrounded it began to crack and disintegrate.
It was pointed out in the press release for this show that time is actually Fischer’s primary subject, which could strike one as being a little facile. Yes, a frozen rain shower is an anachronism, candles burn for only a certain period, and unfired clay will turn to dust sooner rather than later. Untitled (Big Clay #7), a 45-foot-tall cast aluminum sculpture that greeted visitors before they entered the shows, is a blown up pinch of clay. The fingerprints become gigantic and a bit of clay that may have been reclaimed as slip has been made monumental, not to mention durable.
At the end of Christopher Knight’s “Urs Fischer’s grand gestures come up short at MOCA” published April, 25th, 2013 in the Los Angeles Times he compared Fischer to the populist artist Thomas Kinkade, who trademarked his (self-given?) moniker, “Painter of Light.” Ouch.
Earlier in the article, Knight acknowledged that all artists borrow from one another, but asserted that Fischer’s lifting is quite literal and bordering on plagiarism rather than appropriation or homage. He cited almost a dozen cases in addition to this list:
There’s the famous dust affixed to Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass,” here exploded in photographic enlargements of floor sweepings that Fischer mounted to sheets of mirror-polished aluminum; Bruce Nauman’s metal casts of severed limbs; René Magritte’s fruit-obscured portraits; Robert Therrien’s nightmare-twisted beds; Martin Kippenberger’s drunken lamppost; Chris Burden’s physical excavations of museum architecture; the psycho-sexual world of Grimm’s fairy tales mined by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, and more. Fischer riffs on all of them.
It is hard to imagine the same criticism being leveled at Martin Kippenberger, Franz West, and Fischli and Weiss; but unlike these artists, save one, Fischer is alive and extremely active. Who knows what he will come up with in the future.
Urs Fischer (b. 1973, Zurich) lives and works in New York. His work is included in many important public and private collections worldwide. Recent major exhibitions include Kir Royal, Kunsthaus Zurich (2004); Not My House Not My Fire, Espace 315, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2004); Mary Poppins, Blaffer Gallery, Art Museum of the University of Houston, Texas (2006); Marguerite de Ponty, New Museum, New York (2009–10); Oscar the Grouch, The Brant Foundation, Greenwich, Connecticut (2010–11); Skinny Sunrise, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2012); and Madame Fisscher, Palazzo Grassi, Venice (2012), as well as the Biennale di Venezia in 2003, 2007, and 2011.
Amy Albracht is the General Editor at CFile
Above image: Installation view of Urs Fischer’s Melodrama at Sadie Coles HQ. Courtesy of the artist and Sadie Coles, London.