Claudia Fitch: Just Beautiful

Claudia Fitch wants her work to “be as beautiful as Lucille Ball.” This desire both reveals and conceals the complex character of her artistic strategy; this beauty is the beauty of Formica finishes, Maybelline-lacquered fingernails, and the loveliness of the home-perm. Although Fitch is unwilling to conceive of beauty in sublime terms, her work is a demonstration of Baudelaire’s statement, “the beautiful is always strange.” Beauty, for Fitch, is not some mysterious, refined quantity; it is strangely familiar, deeply accessible, and full of humor and pathos.

Fitch’s work inhabits the terrain of popular culture, gleaning from this omnipresent, inescapable source definitions of a beautiful landscape, a handsome man, or a lovely woman. Yet Fitch’s is no naive, omnivorous eye; well-trained artist that she is, she knows kitsch as well as she knows the sleek lines of the classical. Nor is Fitch satisfied with the easy assertions and fatuous ironic associations regarding the nature of American popular culture that seem to obsess the many artists whose work taps this easily available resource. Fitch’s work is deeply cerebral yet is never performed at a remove from social meanings; all her objects have an outer conceptual frame that concerns social usage. Her models are inspired by a conception of “the feminine,” that is to say, by an already filtered notion of “the natural.” Rather than working from the figure, she works from photographs of hairdos or from the Chinoiserie figures available in tourist traps in Chinatowns everywhere.

Conceived and completed last year during a residency at the European Ceramic Work Center in Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, the creation of Fitch’s present work parallels the manufacture of many kitsch objects, created from a mold in multiple editions but individually hand-painted. No special knowledge or skill is required past the production of the original plaster forms from which the molds are taken. Many of the objects are part of a 1998 series titled “Chinoiserie.” Chinoiserie can be loosely defined as European decorative work inspired by and influenced by Chinese classical art. This imitation of the Asian style has spawned three centuries worth of vulgar objects: little fat, nodding-headed Buddha figures, dragon-headed teapots, little racist slant-eyed figurines, clumsy stenciled tea bowls, millions of “jade” vases—all minus the refinement, the jealously kept secrets of porcelain bodies and red-glaze formulas.

Fitch’s objects are painted with the lowfire, brightly colored, shiny glazes that are the West’s fast-food response to 1,000 years of sophisticated Asian ceramic technology. They are extremely strange objects: chimera-like, they seem to borrow anatomical details from any number of mythological figures and combine them with human form. Her “Chinoiserie” series, particularly those pieces titled Guardian (1998), combine aspects of dragons, chickens, and the human female figure. These particular objects make a series of distinct demands on the viewer; they must be accepted for what they are, as “cheap” objects. To perceive them, they must be filtered through a level of knowledge that gives them fine art status. The viewer must be complicit in the complex joke on high and low art; there is no neutral position for the viewer to take. Their very grotesqueness is a sign.

Several of Fitch’s pieces pay homage to the refined and stylized forms from which they are borrowed: Potion Bottle #1 and Potion Bottle #2 (both 1997–98) are “tiny” and “exquisite” in the same way that Japanese net-suke are. Netsuke are finely detailed, diminutive works of sculpture, generally carved from ivory, horn, or wood. They typically depict human figures or subjects and are often grotesque or distorted caricatures. In these small pieces, Fitch has recreated the wit and grotesquerie of her source via near-direct appropriation.

One of her larger objects is also a form of homage to the beautiful and delicate Chinoiserie tile work made by the Dutch in the 17th century. This large floor piece, Kingdom (1997), is composed of hundreds of small yellow tiles, not unlike the roof tiles seen on many buildings throughout northern Europe. Fitch has assembled these pieces into a kind of Disneyesque landscape, complete with tiny, aqua, kidney-shaped swimming pools.

Kingdom is the Rosetta stone of this body of work; it summarizes the various languages Fitch has employed. On the surface, this work exudes a kind of nursery good cheer: small, bright, and colorful, making no particular claim to anything more than the bright, happy optimism of American popular culture. Her subtext is aesthetic colonialism: the way in which the West has exploited and distorted its own and the rest of the world’s high cultures. Consumer culture, mass production, and the ideology of conformity are an intimate part of this mix and Kingdom is what it looks like: a bland, repetitive landscape in which gloss and bright color are used to conceal cheapness and standardization.

To paraphrase Dave Hickey, her objects are too full of “art” to be “about” art. They live, breathe, and speak the language of art; they are clearly derived from a sophisticated familiarity with the art of Europe and Asia. They are meant to be more than what they look like, meant to give form and access to a kind of experience not available on the TV screen or in the mall, yet not alienated from those places. Fitch uses popular culture as a major source of inspiration and pits the polyglot and global nature of this particular system against the great Asian and Western ideals of high culture. Her Asia is the Asia where the idea of beauty has been colonized by Revlon and Coca Cola; where young women have plastic surgery to make their eyelids look Caucasian. Her West is not the West of Paris, Rome, or Athens, but of Las Vegas, Disney-land, and Hollywood. Fitch’s method is odd, anti-narrative, and reliant on memory, association, and tactile experience rather than obvious manipulation of symbols. Her sources are quite concrete and available; she takes the factual, observable, and banal and reforms it via poetic displacement from its original inspiration. This is, of course, dangerously close to the old-fashioned definition of what an artist does.

Kathleen Whitney is a sculptor and critic who lives in New Mexico.