When Asheville artist Barbara Fisher began taking life drawing classes in college, dutifully trying to transfer the body human onto paper, something peculiar happened. “An arm or a leg would often mysteriously turn into something else, like a tree or an animal,” Fisher says. “I began to understand that I’m not truly a narrative painter, but more of a mark maker, a symbolist.”
An exuberant array of these symbols parade through her collaged, mixed media works, from pure shapes to whimsically drawn everyday objects like pocketbooks, flags, teacups, and chairs. They are often arranged in a grid-like composition, as if the viewer is peering into a curiosity cabinet of unrelated objects that somehow, in their cozy juxtaposition, assume a unity of opposites. A drooping flower seems to be bowing respectfully to the floral-printed shirt next door; a Cezanne-inspired mountain range hovers over the Cubist figure of a woman below.
The grid structure developed gradually, Fisher says, as an outgrowth of a previous compositional form she had used to arrange her objects and shapes as if on shelves. “As I broke the shelves into compartments, things changed,” she says. “The paintings could be seen as, say, 12 individual panels in a narrative or as random thoughts, the way we experience stream of consciousness thinking. The relationships between the objects have always been mysterious.”
Fisher’s artistic impulse was sparked early on, though her family background is devoid of artists and peopled with academics and business professionals. But growing up in a part of New Jersey that was an easy commute from New York and its bounty of museums had its advantages. On school trips into the city, Barbara especially remembered visits to the Museum of Modern Art and her exposure to the museum’s treasures by Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin.
“I realized that not only was it possible to create your own world through painting, but you could use whatever colors you wanted,” she says, a discovery still evident in the brilliant palettes found in her work.
Fisher earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado in Boulder and enrolled in the master’s of fine arts’ program at San Francisco State, although she ultimately didn’t take her degree. “I have a rounded studio arts education, but I consider myself primarily self-taught,” Fisher says of the 15 years she lived and worked in San Francisco before moving to Asheville in 1998, where she now has a studio in the River District.
Her interest in collage began when she embarked on a kind of artistic recycling effort by tearing up her older works on paper, then layering the pieces and painting over them. When the supply of her work ran out, she turned to other kinds of paper — wallpaper, sheet music, old calendars, catalogues — anything of interest that could be easily cut up into smaller fragments for arranging on a blank canvas. Acrylics are applied next to create texture, then a final and judicious application of oils.
“It’s a labor intensive process that gives each piece a history which hopefully adds to its mystery, and allows people to spend a long time looking,” Fisher says. “I think art should be interactive in that way.”
Indeed, it’s easy to visually tumble into one of Fisher’s works. They reward close scrutiny with their appealing arrangements of forms that seem to connect to some communal memory, with echoes of African, Aboriginal, and Etruscan motifs, even of Paleolithic cave art.
“I just paint what I see,” she says. “I look inward rather than outside myself. I often have the experience of finding one of my forms in a primitive work of art that I might see in a museum or a book.”
Patterns may emerge or a connecting link between the pictographs may become evident as each viewer’s imagination creates its own interpretive framework. “I’m a big believer in the universal appeal of certain forms and subject matter,” Fisher says. “A lot of my forms are symbols of the Self: houses, purses, vessels, suitcases — things with hidden interiors.”
Which is not to say that Barbara might at times deliberately tweak the zeitgeist, as in a playful Intelligent Design series, all of which feature an egg-like shape twisting amid anatomically-inspired tubes or resting sedately in a landscape of starry mountains. “I thought with all this talk of intelligent design, I would just play along and create my own intelligently designed world,” she says. “While my work is not political there are some things I can’t avoid commenting on.”
Her current series bears the title Back To The Future, a return to her favored grids after experimenting with more open compositions that lacked her trademark compartments, and which featured rock-like forms balanced precariously atop one another. “I pushed this open space as far as I could, deconstructing my own work, if you will,” Fisher says. “But the grid structure was once again becoming very mysterious and challenging to me.”
Some new forms have crept into her productions lately — suitcases, dressers, magnets, conveyor belts — but their meaning is as hidden from their creator as it is from the viewer. “I often say my paintings are like Rorschach tests,” Fisher says. “I find people feel a resonance with these simplified images even if they can’t often say why.”