A Complex Machine | The Work of Aidan Fitzgerald
Essay by Rich Smith | Photographs by Megumi Shauna Arai
Aidan Fitzgerald’s work ethic approaches insanity. So it’s no surprise that entering his studio apartment in Capitol Hill feels like that moment in the movie where the crazed inventor switches on his light to reveal a workshop bustling with perpetual motion machines and bubbling beakers.
In the apartment, art and parts of art lie everywhere. Half-finished abstract paintings lean up against the walls. Books splay out on the couch. His Risograph, a printing device that resembles a copy machine, rests against a wall. Even his records, turntable, and Nintendo 64 seem to be part of a project he’s got going on.
As Fitzgerald gives me the tour, he explains that he splits his apartment into three separate zones of work. A small, windowless room he calls “The Shed,” houses all his materials and tools. His kitchen table doubles as a drawing table, and he’s reserved the larger living room area for painting. When he decides to work on something, he simply walks into The Shed and selects a few tools that excite him. If he’s selected drawing tools, then he shuffles into the kitchen. A brush in his hand sends him to the living room.
Juggling so many projects at once didn’t used to be the norm for Fitzgerald. Back in 2011, when he was completing his B.F.A. at the University of Washington, he would focus all of his emotional and artistic energy into one, giant, project. At the time he was under the impression that the man-hours and rawness he put into each piece would somehow show through in the work. He describes a painting of great ambition, a big drawing of Freud and his daughter that he scraped up, drew over, and layered with paint for months and months. That painting now carpets the floor of The Shed.
“After a while I realized that if you keep whittling a log, eventually you’re gonna end up with a wood chip,” Fitzgerald says. “One day I looked around at my studio and thought ‘Gah, I have so many wood chips.’”
Enter the Risograph, the solver of the wood chip issue. The device, as Fitzgerald puts it, “is the funky little brother of the letterpess.” Like a photocopier, the machine scans an image and produces an ink copy, but the effect looks more like a screen print than a Xerox. To create a piece, Fitzgerald takes an image—a collage he’s constructed out of cut-up personal photos, say, or a drawing—and runs it through the machine. Now that he’s got several copies of the same image, he starts experimenting with different treatments. He’ll draw all over the image with a pencil. He’ll try paint. He’ll see what it looks like dipped in water. Because he has so many copies of an image he likes, he can whittle away as much as he wants and still have a log at the end of the day.
The Risograph also serves as an art-making tool in and of itself. He basically paints with the thing: “When the scanning light is moving, I move the image with it so that it warps and smudges the image,” Fitzgerald says. He used this process to create Neighborhood / Unwind, his piece for Vignettes Collection. The red part that looks like a broad brushstroke is actually a collage of different scenes he smudged together on the machine. He shows me three different treatments of that image: “I fiddled with some colored pencil. Then I drew a cartoon weasel and thought ‘Whaaaat? Why??’ Then I experimented with broad black lines and thought they worked. It’s a tornado. It’s a prison cell. It’s a landscape. It’s a radiator. It’s a cavern. It’s a gunstock.”
Fitzgerald also employs the Risograph to make his own short-run comics and books, all of which are informed by his early training in painting. Painting offers him a set of skills, impulses, and pleasures he uses to push against the strict constraints of comics.
“I don’t really make good comics. I’m not a cartoonist,” Fitzgerald is quick to say. “Most of the comics I do make are less comics and more like sequenced images. It’s less like you’re watching a movie and more like you’re sitting on the couch at 3 a.m. and you’re strung out, flipping through channels.”
His “lists,” a kind of comic strip / painting hybrid, evoke this channel-flipping mood. The lists are a number of disconnected, distinct drawings that use the same imagistic vocabulary. They look as if he went into a comic book, exploded it, and then gathered all the pieces and laid them all out into a line. Like a haiku, each drawing makes one “move.” In the case of a haiku a leaf might become a butterfly wing or a mountain might shrink in a dewdrop. In Fitzgerald’s drawings, a pattern will reveal itself or a juxtaposition will emerge and then at that moment he’ll abandon the piece, as a painter might, satisfied with having made a move he could feel.
His interest in poetry adds even more tools to his shed. In recent work, Fitzgerald takes poetic rhetorical devices such as anaphora and refrain and breaks them over the gridded rhythms of paneled comics. With this process he produces surreal-ish and lonely full-page compositions that repeat several images until a concrete feeling emerges.
In the future, he plans to sustain that lyrical play over the course of a much longer work called Tuesday in Othrwrld. Blending rhetorical techniques and skills from several different genres in order to create an epic lyric comic strikes me as bold, challenging, and potentially really fucking cool. One thing’s for sure: he’s got the tools and the gumption to do it.
Serrah Russell | Scraps
“I don’t want to know the answer; I want to feel the question.” // Serrah Russell.
The halls of the Klee Building smelled of weed and bubblegum as I walked them on my way to Russell’s apartment, which, as is the case for many in a rent-hiked city, also serves as her studio. Russell has no explanation when I ask her about the funny combo of smells in the hallway, but is quick to offer water, iced water, tea, iced tea, a place to sit, anything I need. She gives me the tour. If you step out onto her balcony and look west, you can see a sweeping view of Elliott Bay, its expanse of blue, its islands and mountains that are easy to confuse with clouds. Look due north and you can see a wall of other condo windows. Living rooms with the television off. A dude in a Facebook t-shirt just standing up. Couches with nobody on them. And to the east is downtown Seattle with its pile of towers marching up to Capitol Hill. Mountains and buildings, street lamps and trees, garbage and gold.
On top of all that she’s got these amazing desk lamps that look as if they could have been recovered from a sunken ship’s captain’s quarters. It’s at this desk where she puts in most of her hours. A framed piece by Stand Up Comedy above her desk reads: “I’m Working Hard to Make Art Come Easier,” which seems to be the mantra of her newfound routine. “Every morning I force myself to sit here and work for an hour. I even allow myself to feel bored if I need to.”
She sounded like she was doing her best to hold back a Virginian accent—echoes of twang and gentry—and the hard work ethos she’s adopted reminds me of the protestant ethics pumped into the young boys and girls of my hometown in the Midwest, but she’s lived in Washington her whole life. As a conversationalist, she’s a quick talker. Her thinking is discursive—ideas fracture, and then she loops back to complete them. And its here, in the way in which the English language courses through her, where the connection between her thinking processes and her art-making process seem most apparent to me. Indeed, Russell admits to being a heady creator: “I spend so much time finding the fragments, thinking about them, matching them up, creating them, discarding them, and then repeating this process again and again.” Though an individual piece might only take a few moments to construct, so much thinking and failure precedes a given piece that each seems to hold the weight of hours of work.
In her collages Russell upends our sense of scale and of likeness: warm hands root mountains in air, pleather shares a line with lace, hotel hallways fill with turbulent water–or are they clouds? Her work reveals an eye drawn to weaving together seemingly disparate images. She’s got an eye that sees the limb in a limb, the high ridge in a window still, and the maple leaf in a Dick’s burger wrapper tumbling down the street. When she jams a log next to the wrist of a disembodied limb, she’s opening up radiances of relation between objects. In her more abstract work she delights in jamming together textures that don’t often share a stage, and playing with angles in a way that blurs the line between the image and the frame of the piece.
As far as subject is concerned, she seems most interested in exploring human experience through natural elements. “Everyone knows what a tree is. So a landscape can allow a commonality of experience, where the viewer can bring her own thing to it. I suppose I could show someone’s sad face, but I’d rather show a tree that’s degraded with all its leaves blown off.” Her generosity toward the viewer extends to her treatment of these landscapes, too: “I like that landscapes feel simultaneously solid and yet constantly in flux. It feels permanent and totally not, somehow.” By not directing us one way or another, we viewers are kept in this same kind of flux, which empowers us to take our own paths of interpretation and appreciation. In this way, her clipped and minimal landscapes give us space to create our own vast and detailed countries.
These fragments, she claims, are not worlds but are of a world. And this idea hits on another of her obsessions: absence and presence, the way in which something that’s there indicates something that isn’t there, or vice versa. “You don’t always get to keep everything, you know? But you do get to keep a part, and I’m interested in what you can tell with that little part.”
Lately, though, she’s been thinking about going big, making larger pieces that pop off the page—but she’s reticent. “I haven’t been making large pieces because I think that the “bigger equals better” thing is an idiotic idea. It’s kind of macho. But then I think, ‘Is my work smaller because of what it is, or is it because of a lack of having seen other female role models of this sort of thing?’” She shows me a version of a piece she did for Portland Center Stage, a large collage of body parts done in greyscale. Everything in the piece has its opposite pair: black and white, hard lines and soft lines, smooth and rough textures, masculinity and femininity: the piece explores the very question that worried her about making it in the first place. If she plans to continue to bring to her larger works this level of sophistication and thought, then I say blaze on ahead, sister.