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Legendary Artist Eric Fischl Paints Pools and Politics

By Liz Suman

For the legendary artist Eric Fischl, the personal and the political often overlap. Whether he’s chronicling the sexual intricacies of suburban adolescence, documenting the sociological nuances of human behavior in the international art fair circuit, or caricaturizing world leaders with red clown noses on his iPad, often unsettling, usually beautiful and always thought-provoking explorations of sex, society and politics have come to be hallmarks of Fischl’s work. The artist has also never been afraid to make people feel uncomfortable, and some sense of tension always seems to be simmering subtly just below the surface of one of the pool- or ocean-set landscapes that often appear in his paintings. Fischl’s most recent work is no exception. His current exhibit, Late America, explores the current political climate and what he calls “an older, wealthy class of white males that doesn’t seem to have answers,” as does a recent series of timely farcical caricatures of politicians from Trump to Putin to Pence, which Fischl created with nothing but a stylus and his iPad Pro.

Your original claim to fame as a painter coming up in the 1980s was a focus on sexual subversion in the suburbs. What inspired your current show, and how is and isn’t it different from what you’ve done in the past?
That’s not easy to answer, but I’ve done painting throughout my career that takes place around swimming pools, beaches and places of leisure, and usually, the paintings don’t deliver what they look like they should be delivering. There’s something that undermines the pleasure of the scene—some kind of incident that seems to go against what we believe, or that doesn’t satisfy enjoyment or expectations. In that sense, these paintings are similar to ones I’ve done in the past. The difference is that they’re focused on something that feels specific to this moment: a kind of older, wealthy class of white males that does not seem to have answers.

Speaking of wealthy white males without answers, your digital paintings of Trump and other political influencers as clowns are a departure from some of the more anonymous scenes and subjects you’ve painted in the past. What was the catalyst for such a direct response to the current political climate?
Those caricatures are new to me, and they’re drawings that I’ve been doing on my iPad as a way of amusing myself in the midst of all the craziness that’s been going on. There’s something extreme about the time we’re living in. Artists are trying to figure out ways of dealing with this moment.

You’ve painted a beautiful collection of watercolor nudes. Do any of the paintings in Late America involve the female form?
I have two women in two paintings, but they’re not nude. They’re actually the opposite—fully clothed. I paint women and I have over the course of my career painted nudes, but I don’t actually think of them as nudes so much as naked. In my drawings they’re more nudes, but in paintings, which are more psychological, I see them as naked.

What do you see as the difference between “nude” and “naked”?
“Nude” is erotica. “Naked” is a vulnerability. Being stripped down to the absolute basic and essential. It’s an exposure, so it’s inherently vulnerable. I use that as part of the psychological impact of the scenes that I create. But the way I use it, it’s not idealized. It’s really more about vulnerability, fragility and exposure. Naked is natural.

What’s next for you after Late America?
Continuing to explore the sort of themes that came up as I was making these paintings, because I don’t think I’ve exhausted them yet. The painting I just finished is set around the same swimming pool as the one in Late America. It’s basically just a pool with some lawn furniture and then people doing things. To me it feels like they’re looking at the decline of a certain kind of power and ambition. There are kids in some of the paintings, and in some cases, they need answers and an authority that’s not quite asserting itself. I think the overview of my work is about people’s attachments to objects and images that, in moments of stress or need, don’t deliver the satisfaction or security that they require, so there’s always a kind of split between what things look like and how they feel.

Late America is on view at Skarstedt in Chelsea through June 24.