Ringling Museum exhibition pairs abstract artist Louise Fishman with Old Masters

By LENNIE BENNETT

Times Art Critic

SARASOTA

Interjection is an odd word to use in the context of a museum show. It makes me think of a medical procedure. But take out the "medical" and think of "proceed" and the word makes perfect sense for "Louise Fishman Among the Old Masters" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Fishman, born in 1939, is an abstract expressionist known for basing her compositions in loose grids. Curator Virginia Brilliant has sprinkled (or "interjected") six of her large canvases throughout the permanent galleries.

It's startling at first to enter Gallery 14, devoted to 17th century Spanish art and dominated by Diego Velazquez's Philip IV, King of Spain, a painting with details and symbols that would remind all who saw them of the Hapsburg ruler's absolute power. On the same wall is Fishman's The Way Back painted in 2002 after 9/11. It's the complete opposite of Velazquez, nonliteral and full of bravura brushstrokes.

Why do they work together? In their own way, they're both narratives. Fishman's is more obscure, to be sure, but it contains its own cultural hieroglyphics. Here the grid looks like a street map gone terribly askew on a dark night, with some paths converging onto two squares that might or might not represent the World Trade Center's twin towers. Thick black paint oozes in some parts, like asphalt tar. Small wisps of white hover like smoke, clouds or spirits.

Those are also echoed in El Greco's nearby Crucifixion, where the white wisps are flashes of lightning in an equally apocalyptic scene of a city (in El Greco's case 17th century Toledo, Spain). The connections aren't obvious or necessarily easy but they're there if you look.

Which is the point of such arrangements. I haven't looked as closely at either of the older paintings in a long time. Velazquez's aim was to create such a suave surface, a viewer would never see signs of his hand creating them. Her hand self-consciously responsible for the work, with no attempt at illusions or fooling our eyes, is all we see from Fishman, the paint layered so heavily you wonder how it can adhere to the fabric. But look really closely at Philip of Spain. The glimmer of gold on his spur isn't gold; it's a perfect little swirl of yellow.

You have similar challenges in comparing Fishman's Look Back and Jan Davidsz. de Heem's Still Life With Parrots. The Baroque masterpiece is a riot of color and objects. It's called a still life but the lush composition piled with food, plants, precious objects and a plumed bird seems on the verge of collapsing under its own glorious excess.

Look Back, on the other hand, is somber. But it, too, has a lot going on. The black dashes appear to rotate, as do the broad strips of magenta, both set on a strange blue that can't quite hide multiple underlayers of other paint. It suggests pentimento, the old master habit of painting over a painting. The gestural way Fishman applies her paint also complements the lush folds of fabric the subjects wear in Dutch and Flemish portraits in the same gallery.

I'm not saying museums should do a lot of these interjections. They work when there's a reason rather than as a gimmick. This exhibition asks us to look again. Look differently. In the end, a painting is no more than pigment on a canvas. We can make of it what we wish.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

. IF YOU GO

Louise Fishman Among the Old Masters

The exhibition is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through Oct. 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $25 adults, $20 seniors, $6 children 6 to 17 and includes admission to the art museum, the Ca d'Zan mansion and the Circus Museum. Visit ringling.org or call (941) 359-5700.

Ringling Museum exhibition pairs abstract artist Louise Fishman with Old Masters 10/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 5:30am]

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