Jason W.F. Fitzpatrick is a Vancouver-based sculptor and installation artist whose works evolve out his process-based reappraisals of minimal abstraction. Early minimal artists like Tony Smith, Carl Andre and Richard Serra stressed their work’s kinship to the toiling bodies and hard physical labour required to realize sculptural objects from industrial materials like rolled aluminum or rusty Cor-ten steel. A performance like Serra’s Splashing (1968), which consists of the artist aggressively tossing molten lead into the corner of a room, recalls Serra’s summers spent working in steel mills and shipyards, and the aggressive physicality such work requires. Serra’s performance materializes this energy not as the object of a disinterested, aestheticizing gaze, but as a process constantly in flux, which refuses to settle in any fixed or final form. Whereas the art of sculptors like Donald Judd and Andre luxuriates in the sensual aspects of industrial materials – the opalescent shine of polished brass or the hoarfrost patterns of brushed aluminum – Serra’s process-based abstraction relentlessly deflects attention from art’s materials to the mind that chose them, and the physical actions – splashing, joining, gathering, scattering, binding – that activate them as “art.”
Following Serra, Fitzpatrick’s art begins with the recognition that the artist’s body is just as much an art material as aluminum, Plexiglas or molten lead. Fitzpatrick’s readings of minimal and process-based abstraction are also deeply informed by the thinking of the German artist and social philosopher Joseph Beuys, whose performances and “actions” employed unconventional sculptural materials – fat, felt, wax, honey – as symbolic equivalents for the body.
For bite & burn, Fitzpatrick’s new exhibition at Open Studio, the artist has constructed a small chamber out of plywood inside the gallery. Viewers cannot enter the chamber, but they can peer into it through spaces cut into its sides. For the exhibition’s opening, Fitzpatrick will enter the chamber, where a Toronto tattoo artist, specially commissioned for the occasion, will create an original design down the artist’s spine. Pain and blood are unavoidable byproducts of the tattooing process. During the session, “monoprints” made with a mix of tattoo ink and the artist’s blood will be taken directly from Fitzpatrick’s back. After the opening, the prints will remain in the gallery along with the unoccupied wooden chamber as Beuysian relics of the opening’s process-based performance: proof that his performance’s energy has not dissipated but changed.
Many decisions are contained in Fitzpatrick’s working process. Though made with unconventional materials, his “monoprints” are technically conservative artworks created through the application of a surface to a pigment emulsion, a process the artist can direct, but never entirely control. The unoccupied tattoo chamber can be seen as a minimal artwork in its own right, the equivalent of one of Andre or Sol LeWitt’s serial constructions in plywood or fir. But Fitzpatrick’s aim in developing bite & burn is not to parody minimalism or process-based abstraction, but to deflect them, checking their formal and conceptual progress just as an athlete might by applying body English to a billiard or basketball, and thereby putting a new spin on things.
In Fitzpatrick’s hands, this straightforward process seems more unusual than it really is. Similar operations unfold all the time in film, music and, needless to say, in social history, too, as purportedly “incompatible” versions of the same ideology meet, collide and collapse… or, less often, mingle, as each form absorbs its other and carries that other within it, as a kind of trace or psychic scar.
Artistic modernism has long been considered a “strong force” to be resisted at all costs. Strategies of resistance have been theorized at some length. Deleuze and Guattari’s allegory of the rhizome, a series of interlocking social networks dispersed into those historical cracks and crevices where modernism cannot easily penetrate, and Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo’s notion of “weak thought,” a kind of parodic thinking that deforms modernism from within like termite tunnels through a board, are two concepts that come to mind. Fitzpatrick takes a different tack, pitting two “strong” forms of sculptural modernism against each other, with the artist’s body being ground zero on which these forces meet and mingle.
In Fitzpatrick’s view, modernist abstraction and Beuys-esque social allegory turn out to have much more in common with each other than partisans of either form might be tempted to admit. Modernist abstraction has always been at pains to distinguish itself from popular culture – from tattooing, from the kind of ferociously loud growling guitar rock music that will serve as a backdrop for Fitzpatrick’s opening night performance. Similarly, Beuys’ admittedly rambling and pretentious invocations of German mythology and folk history have often seemed diametrically opposed to the formal and intellectual concision characterizing the work of modernist sculptors like Andre and Serra. To Fitzpatrick’s credit, his work affects a synthesis of these two ostensibly incompatible aesthetic positions, using his body as the ground on which this process unfolds.