Francesca Fuchs: Perspectives 155

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Michelle White

An unexpected shift is great to see when an artist makes a successful break from a well-regarded vocabulary. For anyone familiar with Francesca Fuchs’ previous preoccupation with large, precise paintings of domestic subject matter, the introduction of a painterly gesture into the artist’s work comes as quite a surprise. While Fuchs continues an exploration of domesticity in a subtly cool pastel palette, expressionistic layers of monochromatic hues within blocks of color have replaced slick graphic techniques: the taped and masked lines of wallpaper-inspired graphics, the wide and flat planes of fleshy pink baby heads and crisp, retro floral linen patterns.

What is most refreshing about the eleven works in this exhibition is the evident use of the brush—the insertion of a human touch that suddenly puts monumentally scaled babies, armoires, kitchen sinks, flowers and linen closets into a loaded and formal history. This engagement furthers Fuchs’ conceptual project. In employing a self-expressive method, her means of application is now in conflict with the very familiar and personal subjects she routinely engages. Fuchs carries out this tension through the forced and heady handling of paint. The application looks stilted, as if the artist is trying to maintain a vacant association with the familiar by disallowing herself to succumb to the pleasure of the stroke.

In three paintings of larger-than-life babies, for instance, she layers paint in patches within contained areas. This hesitancy turns the subjects into contemplative little creatures with creased skin and pensive expressions. They are compact, funny, alien objects. In Baby close up, the infant’s hand is poised at the chin. We know we are supposed to coo, but somehow, the mushy subject is at odds with its rendering. This is also the case in two flower paintings. Fuchs’ self-conscious use of paint turns the foliage into pretty but difficult to swallow decor.

In other words, questions about objectivity and the artist’s emotive distance in terms of representation become even clearer when she subjectively, selectively and deliberately pushes around paint. As a result, Fuchs confidently proves, as in past work, that the iconicity of traditional notions of womanhood and its association with the home are still hanging around in all their banal and disquieting splendor. For this reason, the work Woman in Hospital sticks out. In conversation with the babies, the woman, rendered in lifeless beige and taupe in what could be her deathbed, creates a cycle that seems too heavy handed. To be sure, the painting is haunting, but it feels misplaced in the exhibition. The profundity of other works, such as frontal views of isolated armoires, lies in the commonplace, not the exceptional.

Francesca Fuchs, Woman in Kitchen, 2006
Acrylic on canvas
86 x 130 inches
Courtesy the artist and Texas Gallery, Houston

The strongest piece in the show is Linen Closet, with its depiction of folded, uncoordinated and slightly rumpled sheets. One stack of sheets looks about ready to fall over, and some of the fabric looks like it was hastily shoved in. The work can be read on the same two levels on which the entire show alternately functions. First, it is self-reflexive in terms of the artist’s practice: as opposed to Fuchs’ slick, abstracted paintings of groovy stripes and flowers inspired by sheet patterns, these linens are back in context—back in the closet. Like her adoption of traditional paint application, the result is beautiful and a bit awkward.

Secondly, I also read the work in terms of how the artist uses painting in the service of a feminist agenda. Since the early 1970s, from Sandra Orgel’s performance ironing sheets in real time as a comment on female servitude and Miriam Shapiro’s subversive insertion of cloth and fabric into the sacred realm of high art, the linen closet has had a long history in visual representation. Fuchs’ version is deadpan and unapologetically untidy. It is what it is: a fixture of everyday life that is not going away, much like the never-ending battle between the life and death of painting, I suppose. It is an investigation that is especially timely and poignant in light of current discussions about—and the reexamination of—feminism and feminist art in blockbuster exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York. Like the subjects of Fuchs’ paintings, such discussions are still hanging around and still demanding a response.

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