Beverly Fishman, installation view of “I Dream of Sleep,” 2020. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio, Courtesy the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, NY

Beverly Fishman

New York

Miles McEnery Gallery

The untitled sculptures and reliefs in Beverly Fishman’s recent show, “I Dream of Sleep,” hide dark subject matter behind attractive appearances. Silky-looking surfaces and smooth, geometric forms fool the eye with a calm, soothing demeanor. Muted pastel colors add the kind of sleek, impersonal veneer associated with corporate headquarters, modern homes, and other objects of contemporary design denoting easy success and reassuring outcomes. 

Only the subtitles—ADHD, Insomnia, Migraine, Anxiety, Depression, Opioid Addition—reveal Fishman’s subversive intent. Her focus is on pills, in this case, pills that have affected her family members, including her sister Judy, who died in December 2018. Much like Fishman’s sculptures, these pills mislead, disguising potentially dangerous conditions behind a tranquil façade. Addiction has long been under-reported or taken for granted, but the opioid crisis of recent years has finally shed light on the scope of the problem and forced Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the addictive painkiller OxyContin, to plead guilty to misleading the public about its product.

Though Fishman has explored this territory for some time, starting with Mother’s Little Helpers #1-36 (1999), the works in “I Dream of Sleep” seem more subtle and refined in their abstraction. Though they appear machine-made, they are exquisitely crafted from wood and urethane paint. Their large size gives them presence. The relief Untitled (Migraine, Anxiety, ADHD) (2019) features three unusual adjacent forms painted in a disturbing combination of dark gray, brown, and black; a contrasting slim border of pink, purple, or blue surrounds each form, while a central void opens the top right element into a D-shape. This three-part work exemplifies the unity, complexity, and originality of Fishman’s compositions.

I haven’t researched the colors used by big pharma to attract clients and establish brand loyalty, but Fishman has. Her choices engage the eye while also insinuating the symptoms they mask. Untitled (Depression, Missing Dose) (2019) consists of a round shape cut into two small and two larger pieces; three are colored a neutral, pale celadon, while the missing dose stands out in glowing orange-red, framed by a double border of turquoise and bright red. The colors in Untitled (Opioid Addiction, ADHD, Insomnia) (2019) are more complex in their coding: the two small forms on the left have a red frame set between an outer turquoise or gray border and a gray or turquoise inner border, with yellow or green centers. Opioid addiction is the inner yellow-green state and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) is a greener, more intense state. The largest piece of the composition, insomnia, has a three-part border of red, blue, and eggshell with an orange-white center. Are these pills, one to three of them, simply covering over the conditions rather than healing them?

Fishman’s tabletop sculptures, arranged in rows of multiple shapes— round, rectangular, triangular, and square—mix asthma, anxiety, stress, and opioid addiction. The opioid shape is dark, perhaps showing the drugs’ deadening effect on living nerve tissue. The others take on pale blue, pink, and silver tones. The objects all have correspondingly shaped empty centers. Whether or not Fishman’s colors, shapes, and sizes are an exact science is irrelevant; their visual appeal and abstract qualities are key. Haunting and provocative, her visually satisfying and not-so-benign works capture the truth behind appearances.