I walked into Woman Made Gallery this past Wednesday to review Beatrice Fisher’s retrospective, surveying fifty years of art making. Intrigued by the gallery’s website, which noted this was Fisher’s first solo exhibition and that she had studied under renowned Chicago artists Karl Wirsum and Don Baum, I had certain expectations; I was instantly taken, overtaken, by not only the range of her work but its consistent beauty, energy and wit. Two days later, on the day of the opening, I learned that Fisher had just passed away.
On my first visit I spent twenty or so minutes with Beate Minkovski, co-founder and executive director of the gallery. Beate told me it was possible that this would be the seventy year-old artist’s final show, as she was fighting brain cancer. The artist’s son was in the day before to say his mother wouldn’t be able to attend the opening. Beate pointed out some of her favorite pieces and offered a bit of background, brought me a chair, and welcomed me to spend as much time with the work as I wished.
Because there is so much art in the exhibition, spanning so many decades of Fisher’s output, the retrospective may seem at first like a group show. Her various periods do finally coalesce into a unified whole, the common thread being her tongue-in-cheek humor, the cultural critiques and the unabashed exploration of bodies and sexuality. On top of that, each period in her career points to an absolute need to make art, out of anything and everything available. It is the life of an artist on the walls, not just her art.
The “Attachment/Separation” series focuses on divorce in physical terms, splitting Siamese twin-style bodies with knives. There are militaristic penises, disembodied and camouflaged. There is a Jesus clad in ruby slippers and floating in the clouds.
On Friday, I returned to the gallery a few hours before the show opened, and the space was silent. I hadn’t previously noticed that the show’s first work is a self-portrait in which Fisher painted a Rorschach inkblot over her mouth. It felt like an invitation to interpret and associate at will, to take what you could. Later, the gallery placed there a photo of the artist with the inscription, “In memoriam, 1939 – 2009.”
It’s not only the eight-foot tall totemic penises, the gorgeously erotic glittery paintings of tangled limbs, the plug-in fetuses and the Paschke-like double portraits from whose mouths sing columns of honey bees that distinguish Fisher as a unique maker; it’s also, and mostly, the passion and pain, the wry awareness and understanding, the labor and love that persist. Whereas we simply live among the wonder of everyday, Beatrice Fisher chose to make art of her wonder, of each thought and moment she had. It is a small but bursting retrospective of what is possible when one lives artfully, and it is a fine gift to leave behind for the rest of us. (Damien James)
Through November 12 at Woman Made Gallery, 685 N. Milwaukee Avenue.