Allen Fisher’s recent exhibition of a series of paintings dotted around a number of venues in Hereford provided the first showings of the project Engaged Embrace. Further work from this project will be shown in the Apple Store Gallery, Hereford in October.

It will be good to see a broader showing of this work, to allow it its own space, but having the paintings scattered about different venues and amidst the work of other painters, added to the viewing experience for me.

Two large oil paintings, ‘Landtrap’ and ‘Embrace’, were on show at the front of the Apple Store Gallery on Bridge Street; two watercolours, ‘Hinge Trap’ and ‘Thief Trap’ were lurking in the foyer and bar of the Castle Hotel on Castle Street; and three more oils, ‘Warrior Break 2’, ‘Frontal Lobe’ and ‘Hindbrain’ were displayed up in the creaky Hereford Museum & Gallery on Broad Street.

I used Google Maps and Street View to plot a route, which we ended up breaking anyway when we found ourselves physically in the streets, able to gauge the proximity of the venues and feel the pull of the path around Hereford cathedral.

This all seemed appropriate to Fisher’s attention to place and space in his work. The gallery space was experienced as part of the town, not an isolated realm, and that encouraged us to extend it into Diego’s Café on Bridge Street and Rocket Café on St Owen Street.

The invitation to the exhibition stated that ‘Traps and tools have been key themes in Allen Fisher’s work for two decades and their shapes provide the formal starting points in the paintings of Engaged Embrace.’ Fisher has often discussed traps in his writing, particularly in the essay ‘Traps and Tools or Damage’, presented as his inaugural professorial lecture.

In Fisher’s thinking, traps have positive as well as negative connotations. The first traps that come to mind when I think of them are the often violent ones used to capture or maim animals, but Fisher also points out that ‘Traps can be benign like a camera or a cider press capturing light or the juice from an apple’ (p. 1) Similarly, paintings are traps, or ‘machines of representation’ as Fisher put it in his comment to my last post.

Even our ability to perceive and understand things is a kind of trap, as Fisher explains: ‘Traps are what we are all inside of, traps constitute what is known, where to place what is known, between what boundaries’ (p. 1) An idea or concept is a trap, capturing and abstracting experience. Without these boundaries, we wouldn’t be able to know anything, because we wouldn’t be able to make distinctions between things. In a positive sense, traps are about making or finding patterns, connections, or to use Fisher’s term ‘patterns of connectedness’.

The negative side is that this can lead to idealisations of order, such as the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence:

‘They are ratios of planetary existence, which sit comfortably with human proposals for physical and spiritual health and beauty, but do not account for them and appear to ignore the poisonous organic forms also involved in the ratios.’ (p. 6)

If a particular trap or pattern, a certain way of looking at things, becomes an ideal, then forms that don’t fit the pattern might be discarded as aberrations. It becomes resistant to change.

Fisher says his work ‘challenges the conditions of being trapped by what we know’ (p. 1). He introduces damage, using procedures to break patterns that have become habitual. But he is aware that these procedures are themselves also traps: ‘I use traps or tools as processes for transformation of damage, processes that include development and healing’ (p. 2)

He attempts to replace the ideal forms of Euclidean geometry with the more random and indeterminate picture of the world provided by quantum mechanics, to show:

‘That is there is a tangible world of things and experiences and there are worlds beyond our experience, which can only be accessed remotely by tools and traps. These can provide evidence that both the Micro-sub-atomic and the macrocosmic levels exist and perform and are part of and thus affect our existence, but this evidence is not yet quite available to perception except as artefacts.’ (p. 7)

There are aspects of our existence that can only be appreciated through information provided by machines, traps. Fisher calls this ‘decoherence’, as an alternative to aspirations for coherence:

‘an understanding that part of our existence can not be realised, is beyond perception, has a proven actuality and is typically experienced indirectly through artefacts.’ (p. 7)


Embrace (oil on canvas 2012)

I bore this with me when we visited the exhibition. I was thinking about what Fisher said in response to my last post on this blog about quantum ideas as ‘a portal to the realm of the “natural”.’ The invitation to the exhibition said that ‘The paintings celebrate patterns of connectedness between the figurative and conceptual in art.’

The paintings are figurative in a sense and Fisher refers to them as ‘work derived from still life studies’. They are figurative in that they derive from carpenter’s tools and rural traps, but these are abstracted to coloured shapes and rearranged procedurally.

To me they would seem to explore the overlap of the figurative and the abstract, but Fisher doesn’t use the word abstract, instead referring to the conceptual. What seems to be abstract in the paintings is perhaps more appropriately considered as conceptual.

I can see Fisher’s painting as conceptual in that he sets up procedures or systems to transform the object. At the Apple Store Gallery there was an accompanying note alongside the paintings which referred to the ‘vibrant use of colour … which on the surface displaces the origination of the shapes into a new experience, defamiliarising the sense of recognition, giving the rigour of the work a fragility and freshness.’

As with his poetry, Fisher is interested in processes of transformation. For example, creek in the ceiling beam recorded the occurrences of a creak in a ceiling beam and used the graph to produce a poem, transforming the creak into words; similarly, The Art of Flight transposed the score of Bach’s The Art of Fugue into words. He works conceptually with different materials, whether textually with words or visually with paint.

Fisher uses the procedures to give ‘fragility and freshness’. He has used the terms vulnerability and frailty to similar effect. The paintings don’t come across as definitive or authoritative, unlike more conventional still lifes, which might attempt to provide a recognisable likeness of the object depicted. These still lifes are far from still. They are actually more like life in the way they remain constantly in motion. The eye keeps chasing the curves and lines across the canvas, the mind keeps trying to resolve the inkblot into a familiar pattern, but no still point is ever reached. Rather than a finished object, they leave a lot for the viewer to do.

Thief Trap

Thief Trap (watercolour 1996)

But what is the viewer to do? I couldn’t determine what tool or trap was being transformed in any of the pictures and I didn’t feel that was the point. Though they are derived from objects, Fisher doesn’t try to give a realistic illusion of them. I did sometimes find myself thinking things like ‘That looks like a bird looking at a banana’, but I didn’t feel that was an appropriate response either. It didn’t seem to be about finding what the pictures represent as if they are puzzles to work out. I don’t think it’s about decoding some hidden symbol or allegory. Or that’s not what appeals to me about them.

The main thing I got was that the paintings confront the viewer with the physical material of the work: in the oil paintings the paint is applied thickly and in the watercolours there is often a tearing effect to the paper. But they are not self-contained, stand-alone entities as abstract works often seem to strive to be. The paintings give a strong impression of being part of a wider process. The serial form gives a sense of an ongoing project, which is evident in the titles where there are recurring references to traps (‘Landtrap’, ‘Hinge trap’, ‘Thief Trap’) and parts of the brain (‘Frontal Lobe’, ‘Hindbrain’). This is why I missed the notes on the procedures in this exhibition. When we saw the ‘Meditation Traps’ at the Apple Store Gallery last year there was an accompanying note giving some brief suggestions of how the pieces had been composed. This seems important for conceptual work, which isn’t just the exhibited artefact – the object is a trace of a process.

The conceptual element does seem to make the paintings allegorical in a sense: in that traps are used as a metaphor for painting and perception. Just as a photograph is the result of the trapping of light by the camera, a painting or a poem can be considered as the result of a trap. It traps paint. It also traps time, recording in space the marks made upon it over time. This may be why Fisher uses the serial form: the paintings are slices of a process of using similar procedures with similar materials over a long period of time. And as well as being the results of traps, the paintings are also traps themselves. They are active. They are traps that are activated, or sprung, each time we view them. They provide a trap for the viewer’s perception. Like the machines used in quantum mechanics, they capture forces that are not empirically observable.

Warrior Break 2

Warrior Break 2 (oil on canvas, 2012)

In the previous post I wondered about the connection Fisher makes in ‘Confidence in Lack’ between experimental physicists’ use of machines to perceive the activity of quantum entities which we are unable to perceive directly and Plato’s dismissal of poetry because of the poets’ inability to explain what their poems mean. ‘Poems don’t seem to come from machines, so why are they removed from direct perception?’ I asked. Fisher responded that:

‘poems are removed from perception if they are transformations from that perception, transformed through language, through thinking and might involve speculation or supposition bereft of direct perception. I presume we can understand æsthetic reception as more than perception.’

In a similar way, these paintings are transformations from perception. The image encountered is not something that has been directly perceived by the artist, but is the result of activity carried out by a machine, a system or procedure. Realism is conventionally about showing the world as closely as possible to how we experience it. But the world also contains things that we cannot perceive except with the use of machines. So I ended up thinking of the paintings not as illusionistic depictions of reality but actual engagements with that reality and invitations to engagement with reality.


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