Michelle Fierro: The Ethics of Ambiguity
Interview by Gary Brewer
“From the very beginning, existentialism defined itself as a philosophy of ambiguity”
Simone de Beauvoir
“When an actor is in the moment, he or she is engaged in listening for the next right thing creatively. When a painter is painting, he or she may begin with a plan, but that plan is soon surrendered to the painting’s own plan…”
Julia Margaret Cameron
Painting is a language that opens up avenues of expression and self-discovery that are unique to the medium. No other art has rules that can be followed or broken that govern its realization in quite the same way. The instantaneous sense that there is something true in a painting is singular and defined by properties of communication that exist in the body, the central nervous system and arrive unannounced by a vocabulary of words. It is somatic, conveyed directly into the body, the mind, our memory and our imagination. We sense and feel the hand of the artist, from the bold gesture to the subtlety and nuance of a shadow. Each artist who picks up a brush is entering an arena filled with the presence of ancestors remembered and forgotten, to find their own voice and vision, to trace a line, a point of departure in search of a destination. It is an act of will and submission, the alchemy of making fragments whole.
Michelle Fierro’s paintings are protean in nature they suggest landscape, the figure, pure abstraction and collage. She moves freely using the history of her own work from the earliest “attachment”, paintings where she affixed globs of paint to the surface creating object paintings, to more recent works where images of faces, of the upper torso, the landscape and other recognizable elements converge into works that suggest and cajole meaning rather than assert a single point of interpretation.
She mentioned that words and phrases are important to her that it added content to the paintings. She said of her earlier work, “In my ‘attachment’ paintings, the word attachment had a dual meaning, to attach the paint to the canvas and the attachment we feel for others, friends, family, lovers. Or to let go of attachments.” She spoke of the passing of friends and of people who were important to her, of letting go. The word play reflects the physical actions in her paintings and lends a poetic ambiguity to her work, reflecting events in her life as well. In Fierro’s paintings these word plays add subjective content to the gesture.
In these early works she affixed scrapings from her studio, or globs of paint from her artist friends to the canvas. The canvas surfaces had a wash of color on them, or sometimes, random scatterings of paint flakes, which she tossed onto a surface prepared with wet gel medium. The random patterning would inspire and instigate a response from her, randomness leading to spontaneity. In some of these paintings she would also give herself a time limit in which to position the paint accretions, the duration would have an effect on the feeling of the work, the rhythmic velocity of the arrangement.
She painted the ‘attachment’ paintings from 1995 to 2005 and then felt it was time for a change, line became important in her work. “ Line dissects space, it connects space and it activates space. It is a record of movement from one point to another and of its speed and trajectory.” These graphic dynamics are a part of the building blocks of a visual vocabulary that acquire a subjective syntax expressing the artist’s process of creating meaning from the physicality of the medium.
The works emerge both from an understanding of her process and of her willingness to get lost in the process and to be forced into the present.
Michelle started out in black and white photography and she spoke of her admiration for Julia Margaret Cameron.“ I’m drawn to the heroic effect that she achieves with her sitters by her close cropping and resolution of her photographs.” She mentioned how the duality of black and white, positive negative and the silhouette of forms influenced and shaped her thinking. In her current work she is bringing back elements of the photograph, drawings and suggestions of forms derived from photo based images. Michelle mentioned how important the silhouette is to her; in several paintings she said that the shapes and lines that seemed abstract were taken from the silhouette of images and photographs that she used as source material.
Before I left, Michelle brought me into her home to see an enormous piece too large for the studio. A 6×9 foot painting in which she was interpreting the idea of earth art. She spoke of the intrinsic masculinity of the form, specifically of the work of Robert Smithson whom she admires. She wanted to make a work that captured something of the idea of representing the passage of time, an element in the work of Smithson that she is particularly drawn to. She said, “ I wanted to translate earth art through the eyes of a woman, with children and a family, I was not going to go out and move earth so I made a painting that suggests the earth, the sky, a rainbow, a mountain, a horizon.”
In this painting the scale is activated by lines that clearly reflect the arc of her arms reach and exert a sense that they exist as graphic ciphers and as markings of duration. The earthy rose-brown color of the rainbow conveying innocence is surrounded by brushy gestural grays, a kind of stormy atmospherics that gives the painting an emotional depth and weight. It is a beautiful painting and a remarkable translation of her intentions to reinterpret the idea of duration into an image.
Michelle spoke about the color brown, of how comforting it was to work with, that it was a blend of all colors and that because of this it allowed one to move from brown to any other color easily.
This blending of all of the colors brought to my mind Michelle’s approach to paintings, to bring myriad elements together, fragments of meaning attached to each other. Of a personal journey of relationships, of letting go of attachments of the passing away of people and places, of the passage of time and the marks that it leaves; the trajectory of life and the contour of a silhouette of something or someone who is no longer here.
Michelle Fierro will be supporting the Venice Family Clinic with a donation this year. For any questions regarding upcoming shows please contact cnichols project, in Mar Vista, California.