Ali Fitzgerald: Swan School; The Matriculation
Reviewed by Rachel Cook, Fri., May 9, 2008
'Ali Fitzgerald: Swan School; The Matriculation'
Art Palace, through May 21
Ali Fitzgerald should write a screenplay with all the characters in her paintings, drawings, and now small sculptural objects. Fitzgerald started with the women from the Wild West, creating a whole mythology around particular female outlaws, which ended up as the subject/content for "On Virgin Land," her 2005 show at Art Palace. Now, she returns to the gallery with "Swan School; The Matriculation," a show built around a character called Sad Little White Girl, who is imprisoned in the privileged East Coast boarding school of the title. In an interview, Fitzgerald spoke about her interest in literature and her fascination with characters: "I love epic novels like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, anything long and depressing. I'm also a big Flannery O'Connor fan; I think her short stories are incredible. I was always an avid reader, and I think this might be why my pieces are so character-driven."
In the current show, Fitzgerald creates two distinctly different spaces in Art Palace: one filled with gilded, gold-framed, gold-paper cutouts and the other filled with two incredibly lonely sculptures/installations. In the latter, Fitzgerald sets the scene with a small carriage resting on the floor paired with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Both objects evoke the beginning of an epic tale. The small boat or lace-decorated baby carriage appears to be floating down a river made of canvas and modeling paste (although all I can imagine is cake frosting for a wedding-cake sculpture or a baby-shower present). The titles alone tell you the literary nature of the work: Not simple pleasures. Scene opens five times, a looming cradle is lowered as a cream-heavy chandelier chases and finally engorges it. And from the wetness and lace comes a girl. Her exit, so different from the others is slow and weak. No toothy explosion, no triumphant rearing head. Just a finger. (Sesame Street music box plays slowly). The river spills out onto even smaller paper cutouts, which are meant to be Sad Little White Girl's toys, except that they are made up of sharks and splinters, or so the title says.
The centerpiece is a huge canvas backdrop of the boarding school, a Gothic cathedral interior that brings the narrative into focus with three stations and perspectives. Fitzgerald has shifted the scale to make the viewing experience optimal from the floor of the gallery, as if you were sitting to watch a puppet theatre for children. In front of the backdrop are three watercolor, modeling paste, and foamcore mobiles explaining Sad Little White Girl's future and past. The sculptural objects set the stage for the narrative based around the female heroine, Sad Little White Girl, and provoke a particular reaction and set of emotions. Each piece is obsessively worked over so that the modeling paste becomes a three-dimensional line, and the blend of wire with canvas makes the canvas act as a structural material and less of a painterly object.
Fitzgerald has been through her own growing pains with this body of work, moving from the giant, mural-sized canvas of "On Virgin Land" to the three-dimensional objects and hanging sculptures of "Swan School." In addition, the narrative has grown more intimate and even slightly autobiographical. On the one hand, Fitzgerald has made an incredible leap in terms of materials and content, with her work containing a revealing openness in both the subject matter and her attempts to create something three-dimensional that still holds true to her painterly vision. On the other hand, the work lacks a kind of cohesion, and the loss of the figure as the central focus becomes slightly problematic.
Since the Austin Museum of Art "20 to Watch" show, Fitzgerald has gotten a better grasp of the materials and improved tremendously in creating a more stable structure, but all this working out of ideas while exhibiting causes me to doubt her artistic direction. Maybe it is a good thing to see an artist teasing out her ideas in public, but sometimes I just want to enter into the final product after she has figured out the materials, gone through the growing pains, and been able to assess whether the narrative and characters work with the materials and objects presented. I feel like I never get that opportunity with Fitzgerald, because she is changing her process so rapidly from show to show.