For centuries, Western artists labored to understand and reproduce the appearance of the natural world. Art created in the 19th-century academies of Europe testifies to their eventual success, so that by 1905, Picasso could move on, reminding writer and collector Gertrude Stein that, according to previous standards, the portrait of her he was painting would not look very much like her. The implication of his warning was that he, and art, had moved on: that there were now other, more important things that art could attempt than to copy what the evolved but untrained eye could see.
Stein’s image then set in motion a reappraisal of the portrait as genre that culminated during the interpersonal isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular in half-a-dozen portraits by Chie Fueki. Born in Yokohama, Japan, and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Fueki has adopted an appropriately multi-cultural approach to art-making that over time has won her both Joan Mitchell and Guggenheim Fellowships. Her exhibition at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art comes in response to her winning the 2023 Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting. The exhibition also includes a recent work, “Mountain Altar,” part of a series developed in her studio in New York’s Hudson Valley. Just as she reimagined the portrait, here she reconsiders the influential American landscape that began in, and has since been associated with, the Hudson River Valley.
Two characteristics, one technical and the other aesthetic, give Fueki’s panels their unique character. In keeping with her multi-cultural and multi-linguistic background, she developed an analogous painting technique: one that allows her to freely mix visual elements, just as a skilled speaker might choose the most effective linguistic elements to construct a sentence. “I consider myself a mixed-language painter with an interest in Eastern and Western perspective systems, architectural graphics, pop animation, pre-Renaissance European painting, and exuberant color,” she writes in her Doctorow presentation. Such visual double entendres as she employs are accepted in ways that verbal puns rarely are, but it’s also true that media so mixed so as to call attention to themselves are relatively common in local arts, often extending to assemblage and the reliquaries that have become popular in Utah.
What further distinguishes these large paintings is how much goes on in them. And what doesn’t. Left out for the most part are the surfaces and masses that preoccupied painters for centuries. There are almost no solid objects in Fueki’s world, just as there are no solid objects in the physicist’s universe, and even those that appear solid will usually oblige by dematerializing on close inspection. Her elaborately marked and decorated surfaces have been linked to the primarily ornamental style of art that appeared about half a century ago, and not without reason. However, Fueki uses her ornament to break down whatever it adorns, so that her panels essentially become nervous and energetic, ultimately transparent fields. Ironically, while depictions tend to interpenetrate and question the validity of each other, patterns emerge that create an alternative physicality that mimics the way molecular behavior produces the sense that some things are solid, rather than lattices of charged particles surround by space.
Take, for example, “Ellen,” a panel almost completely covered by parallel sets of inked lines. Study reveals that in this frenzy of flat, linear patterns lightened by a spray here and there of frequently overlapping dots, there lurks a red-headed woman riding a bicycle. Anomalies that initially disguise her eventually become part of the signal: three shoes suggest the rotational motion of her feet on the pedals. The dots running where her face should be give an animated tilt to her head. Most importantly, the three major elements in the composition — her dress, the wheels of her bike, and the ground she rides over — while completely flat and in the plane of the picture, assume an increasing reality that the mind dictates back to the eyes. We’re reminded that the brain is anything but a passive organ; rather, it ceaselessly hypothesizes from what our senses tell it, sending out guesses to be tested until enough discoveries line up to form an identification.
So these works are not just busy for the sake of busy-ness. The portraits depict friends and colleagues of the artist, and the details reveal what she feels she knows about them. In “Kyle,” the headphones are a personal take on a generational feature, while his smoke and his Nike shoes are specific. “Catherine” is an influential colleague whose identity as a painter is revealed by her arm stretched across the panel to bring her brush into contact with her own painting, which is hidden by its having been made the border of Fueki’s. Meanwhile, the dots have become paints on a palette surrounded by images of water ready to be collaged. A paint stain on her sleeve matches the spattered paint that covers her workspace.
The sheer amount of information and number of connections here is alternately stunning and spell-binding. In one example, the goldfish in the aquarium on the table in “Mountain Altar” helps identify the horizontal green areas in the background as fish-filled water: presumably the Hudson River. Thus the view out the window is brought back inside, just as conditions in nature have a way of coming back. So the plants in the window mirror their copies in the Tiffany lampshade. On the Craftsman chair, a slender volume, also bearing a picture of a window, is labeled “Oates,” possibly a copy of the Joyce Carol Oates short story collection, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”— stories about young subjects finding their way through the challenges of growing up, including what lies between girlhood and womanhood. If that seems too pretentious for speculation, there’s also a remote control to connect to yet another level of technology. Chie Fueki offers this act of viewing the world through a window as compensation for how many lives had to be lived remotely during the pandemic. Or perhaps her point is more forward-looking. After all, we are all well served by the many kinds of windows, the various media her work celebrates so colorfully, that enable us to enrich our lives beyond what we can see for ourselves, in person.
2023 Doctorow Prize Winner: Chie Fueki, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 6, 2024