Shiny Happy Canvases

The canvases of the American realist painter Janet Fish are so vibrant, so shimmering with light, energy, and bright, saturated colors, that to call them "still lifes" fails to do them justice. And yet Fish's dominant subject matter is the stuff of traditional still-life painting: vases of flowers, bowls of fruit, other glass and metal containers of various sorts, some empty, some not. People and animals are also featured in the paintings, but the heart of a Fish image is almost always an arrangement of still-life objects. Human or animal life is typically relegated to the background or margins of the picture, which insistently pulls the viewer's gaze to the fruit and flowers.

Again and again the oil paintings in "Janet Fish: Selected Works 1970s-1990s" at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale confirm the primacy of the still life for Fish. In Mom (1990), for example, the title character occupies half the canvas, but it's evident that the artist's real interest lies in the still life taking up the rest of the painting. Similarly the two people in Lorna and Bob (1995) are mere quotation marks enclosing a still life, with the wild-haired Bob, in particular, looking as if he'll fly out of the picture altogether.

Sometimes the living creatures in a Fish painting are so thoroughly integrated into the composition that they become part of the still life. The trio of dogs in Dog Days (1993) -- a playful pair in the upper-left corner, one sitting alone at the right edge of the canvas -- all but blend into the summery set of flowers, fruits, and glassware. And the cat that's half-in, half-out of an open drawer in Tulips and Grey Cat (1989) seems to have been added not so much for a sense of movement but as a source of contrasting color and contours.

In a work as large and complex as Up in Smoke (1997), which stretches 11 feet across and dominates an entire wall as you enter the exhibition, the interplay of foreground still life and background action creates a palpable dramatic tension. Here Fish gives us a festive outdoor picnic (an abundance of red, white, and blue suggests a Fourth of July outing), with animated children at play in a field and smoke drifting from a grill on the right side of the canvas. It's an unusually busy scene for Fish, but once again still life triumphs. The imagined laughter of the frolicking kids fades, overwhelmed by the colorful cornucopia of chips, potato salad, cupcakes, and other items casually arrayed across the picnic table.

The only other comparably busy painting in the exhibition -- and, I think, the show's only complete failure -- is Geese in Flight (1996), in which the overly fussed-over still-life foreground and the title birds of the background run together in a messy, unfocused clutter.

A panel posted on the wall near Mom includes this alleged explanation for Fish's fascination -- or near-obsession -- with the still-life format: "In a recent interview, Fish mentioned that no matter how expansive her images become, there will probably always be a still life in the foreground, because 'I'm nearsighted and I focus on things near me.'"

A good sound bite, perhaps, but I suspect there's much more to it than that. Fish's compositions are too meticulously worked out to be explained away so cavalierly. Instead she seems to have intuitively hit upon a way to reinvigorate a potentially moribund genre: She restores the life to still life. To appreciate what an accomplishment this is, consider the vast glut of second- and third-rate still lifes that clog galleries everywhere. Far too often the emphasis is on the "still," as in "stillborn."

Now look at Fish's work. One of her shrewder impulses has been to open up her paintings. There's never an air of claustrophobia in her still lifes but rather a sense that they rest on the threshold of a window to the world that lies beyond. Sometimes that window is literal, a background framing device that lets in a glimpse of a city street or a patch of forest or field. (The Boston-born Fish, who's now 60 years old, works out of both her New York City studio and her Vermont home, and on the basis of what's seen through the background windows, it's not difficult to guess which pictures were painted where.)

For the dazzling Fallen Vase (1987), Fish omits all but the most evocative elements of that window on the world. There are no wooden sashes, no glass panes, just sheer pink curtains billowing in on a still life that includes an overturned vase of red, orange, and yellow marigolds; a small lamp with its shade blown askew; and a tilted bowl with a couple of pieces of fruit on the verge of spilling out. This is a still life, all right, although an amazingly active one.

In Fallen Vase, as elsewhere, Fish is deliriously in love with the play of light on gleaming surfaces. She has a photorealist's feel for the intoxicating effects that can be achieved by first juxtaposing several shiny objects in close proximity, then capturing the reflections that ricochet back and forth as the light filters through the scene. In pieces like Fish Vase (1997), Green Bowl and Two Roses (1979), and Raspberries and Goldfish (1981) -- the latter on loan from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection -- Fish offers so many reflections that you can get lost trying to follow the light from one surface to another.

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