This essay was written in conjunction with Ernst Fischer: 18%, on view at CUE Art Foundation February 7 - March 14, 2015.
Through the lens of a camera, an object is captured. But what happens when you zoom in on an object to such a microscopic degree that the picture no longer resembles the thing it’s supposed to portray — or even its molecular components? The image collapses in on itself, until it is nothing more than a pixelated, flat plane that transmits no information.
The components of looking without really being able to see — the exact moment when visualization is neutered — are what Ernst Fischer aims to uncover through his practice. In his exhibition “18%,” at CUE Art Foundation, the Swiss-born artist presents works that “zoom in on details too numerous or too minute to humanly process or comprehend,” as he puts it. At the same time, he examines the mechanisms of looking embodied by motion pictures and photography.
He explains all of this in his studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The space, which he shares with figurative painter Matthew Watson, whom he met while in graduate school at Columbia University, is tucked inside a large industrial building marked by nothing but unmarked gray doors. Although Fischer and Watson work in divergent styles and mediums, one senses a close camaraderie between the artists. They bounce ideas off each other, sit down for lunch together, and will even lend each other a smartphone when necessary.
Fischer did not begin his career as a fine artist. After receiving technical training as a filmmaker in London, he spent nine years as a freelance commercial photographer, shooting successful ad campaigns for American Express, Volkswagen, Renault, Land Rover, Ford, Volvo and other major companies. While he excelled at taking photos of big machines, he also did editorial work for publications such as Dazed and Confused, Frieze, Graphic, The Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, AnOther Man and I-D, and shot documentary footage for NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières. All the while, Fischer maintained what he describes as a “quasi-secret lab practice.”
As a fourth-generation creator — his father, Kaspar Fischer, was an actor, writer and sculptor, and his grandfather, Hans “Fis” Fischer, was a well-known painter and illustrator of children’s books — Ernst says that he “ran a mile from any situation in which I’d have to call myself ‘artist’ for most of my working life.”
Fischer’s experience as a commercial photographer led to an exploration of his relationship with the camera, which he calls “the machine.” Almost as if he wanted to destroy that relationship, he developed a microphotography rig that allows him to capture images that are between five and 50 times larger on the focal plane than they are in the real world. These objects vary from minerals to caviar to leeches. (He jokes that microphotography is only practiced by 60-year-old men in their backyard sheds . . . and himself.)
Using the rig to move the lens closer and closer to his subject, he takes hundreds of digital photographs at increasingly miniscule depths, which he then feeds en masse into a computer program that attempts to extrapolate information from the data to reconstitute a seamless rendering of the object. In subverting this process, Fischer ”cracks” the algorithm, which can interpret neither the specular highlights captured by the lens nor the sheer wealth of data. Instead of an extraordinarily detailed composite of the object, the computer spits out a flat image that resembles a topographical map. What Fischer hopes these images reveal is that machines, which are supposed to be able to emulate anything, including human vision, are just machines in the end. They cannot reproduce the mechanisms of “seeing.” They have limits. There’s something profoundly reassuring about that.
In “18%,” Fischer brings these explorations a step further. Rather than taking pictures of an object itself, he focuses on the reflection of the light source that illuminates it. “The object is circumscribed, like the black hole that can only be ‘seen’ by virtue of it bending the light that passes close by it,” he explains.
The resulting images, which include a series of refractions through zinc crystals, vary from resembling oil slicks to screen noise to melting objects. He describes them as looking very “Goya.” Comparisons to Romantic painters, and, more specifically German Romantic painters, arise frequently in Fischer’s explanations of his own work, almost always followed by an apology. He describes such examples as schlocky and says that any move toward painterliness is preconscious.
But he need not apologize. Both the Romantics and Fischer are interested in the same thing: the sublime. The space where something is transformed beyond all calculations and imitations. The moment of the divine. In the end, the quest to find this point of transfiguration is so beautifully human that the act itself is sublime.
In a cinemascope-format video projected on the front window of the gallery, Fischer has processed 3,500 jpegs he downloaded from the White Nationalist web forum Stormfront.org. He first began studying a thread of images on the site, published under the headline “post your all-time favorite piece of visual art,” after reading a 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center that links Stormfront members to almost 100 ideologically motivated murders. The images mostly show works by Salvador Dalí, M. C. Escher, the Pre-Raphaelites and, yes, Romantic landscapes painted by John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich. And so, using a frame-blending algorithm, Fischer has fashioned a flickering, fragmented, hypnotically pulsating film out of the pictures — an unplaceable tableau that forms a “rich void.”
To explain why he did this, Fischer uses a quote from Brecht: “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.” The questions Brecht’s aphorism raises for Fischer include, “What constitutes good and bad?” And, “When considering the supremacy of the white male in cultural production and society at large, what can a white male artist create that is neither ironic nor despicable?”
Perhaps Fischer’s ambivalence about this last question drives other aspects of his work. He may feel that he cannot create anything that would be read by others without a critical bent, so it would seem he produces voids that cannot be read at all. Another example of this is a series of images framed using acrylic panels that he culled from discarded flat-screen televisions. The screen elements have patterns of white dots that get denser toward the center and function to frustrate a clear view of the photographs.
In total, the exhibition represents a glimpse of the infinite, and in the same breath a nihilistic impulse. No matter how close we get to the source of something, ultimately, much of the universe remains beyond our comprehension. An artist’s task, arguably, is to capture the moment of slippage when an object starts to shimmer near the void.
This essay was written as part of the Young Art Critics Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which appoints established art critics to serve as mentors for emerging writers. In 2014, CUE joined forces with Art21, combining the Young Art Critic program with the Art21 Magazine Writer-in-Residence initiative. Each writer composes a long-form critical essay on one of CUE’s exhibiting artists for publication in CUE’s exhibition catalogue, which is also published by Art21 in its online magazine. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. For additional arts-related writing, please visit on-verge.org.
Brienne Walsh is a writer and critic who has contributed to Art in America, ArtReview, Modern Painters, Interview, The New York Times, The Village Voice, PDN, Architectural Digest, Departures and Paper, among other publications. She is currently working on a book of essays.
Mentor Trent Morse is an arts writer and editor in Brooklyn. His book Ballpointists is forthcoming from Laurence King Publishing.