Few contemporary painters nail the zeitgeist as pointedly as Eric Fischl. The artist is in top form at his current show “Late America;” five large-scale canvases that pack a paunchy punch: the Hamptons’ haute bourgeoisie, magnified poolside by harsh daylight in the full flawed glory of their middle-aged decadence.
Fischl’s merciless vision is equally unkind to the men and women in these works, but here the men fare slightly worse. This is the decline of the American empire in painted Technicolor, and its various iterations depict the nominal heads of household as gracelessly aging emperors without any clothes. Although the show’s press release states that the pieces are not political, it is hard not to think of the wizened white patriarchs currently in power.
In the title painting, Late America, begun just after the 2016 election, a small boy draped in a towel printed with a bright American flag stands by the supine figure of his father, whose fleshy backside dominates the view. His father’s fetal pose is both self-protective and somewhat abject. In the background, behind the pool’s azure oasis, four lawn chairs are lined up; between them is a glimpse of faceless, hatted workers, probably immigrants, manicuring the lawn.
In Face Off, a middle-aged man with a prominent potbelly proudly protruding above his black bathing suit stands in the pool, his hands clasped confidently behind him, his face shuttered by sunglasses. He is staring down an adolescent whose thumbs tentatively tease the waistband of his orange bathing suit. The incestuous? sexuality remains ambiguous and subdued, but whatever the nature of the confrontation or seduction, it is distinctly disturbing.
Equally ambiguous and suggestive is a picture of a girl nestled against her father’s naked body in Daddy’s Girl Age 11. There is nothing overtly sexual in the image, but the juxtaposition of the girl in her two-piece suit leaning against the lower half of her father’s nude, headless body (his face is entirely shadowed by a celebrity magazine), is deliberately provocative, despite the innocent detail of her feet–and the golden retriever’s nose — grazing the pure blue water.
Though thankfully clothed, the several women in these paintings also suffer the indignities of time and class. The first image in the show is of a blowsy woman, possibly drunk, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, standing or teetering (somewhat threateningly) above a boy feeding his pet turtle. Will she inadvertently or deliberately empty the bottle on his head?
And then there is Daddy’s Gone, Girl, a portrait of a damsel in distress. This damaged beauty, strongly resembling Brooke Shields, sits on the edge of the pool, still wearing the black lace dress of the night before, its hem trailing in the water. The face of this modern-day Ophelia is an exquisite study of the early ravages of time. The whisky glass at her side suggests drowning one’s sorrows, while a faithful Labrador paddles towards her as if coming to her rescue.
Fischl has always been a master of the “what’s wrong with this picture” aspect of the American dream. He is adept at planting the seeds of nascent narratives, prompting the viewer to reflexively try to complete the plot. Each picture, and its apt title, tells a story, and every story is subject to interactive interpretation. Taken as an anthology of suburban short stories, Cheever-style, this show could just as well be entitled, “Too Late, America.”
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).