Matthew Fisher grew up in America’s Midwestern lands. The vivid blue skies and soaring mountain ranges of his childhood in Michigan and Minnesota were left behind, but would follow him, waiting to resurface. While studying at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received his Master of Fine Arts, Fisher dealt mostly in abstraction. When he graduated and moved to Brooklyn, where he made his home, Fisher abandoned the tongue-in-cheek abstract style he was taught in art school. Pressing political concerns spurred visions of a grand wilderness bringing the emblematic landscapes back through the surface of his work.
He experimented for two years until he found the imagery that now identifies him: flat glossy images of late 18th-century French soldiers. He was inspired by a jumble of photographs, memories, current events, and used bookstore paraphernalia that all fell hopelessly into place. Fisher calls this style “thrift store realism.” The paintings, which are fairly small, are meticulously detailed, from the blades of grass carpeting the landscape to the shiny buttons on the uniforms. But there’s something synthetic there, almost surreal, and this slightly uneasy aspect is as political as it is aesthetic.
Fisher invites us to reflect on the absurdity of getting dressed up for the purpose of killing people. He says he began the solider paintings when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and he used the historical distance of the soldiers to convey a subtle political message. To represent and comment on contemporary events, he built a visual language out of anachronistic uniforms and Midwestern memories: wide open spaces, marching band practice, and bird watching with his dad.
As such, the internal conflicts of Fisher’s Napoleonic soldiers play out over vast North American landscapes, where the land itself is both conqueror and conquered. Botanical and zoological specimens held by affectless soldiers suggest the exoticizing eye of the invader, but Fisher shows a terrain that is unwilling to be colonized. “Out west, the landscape is more powerful than you,” Fisher says. It’s a palpable presence in his paintings.
In his piece “Northern Light,” from 2007, a staid soldier in crisp red and white appears to have subdued a lion, and the two sit gazing calmly in the center of a symmetrical landscape, as if they think they’re having their portraits painted. But the dull gray sky behind them, peeling birch bark framing them, and crimson mushroom ignored by them all point to a threatening future, and nature’s power to destroy the plans of men.
Fisher is inspired by the works of the Hudson River School, a group of 19th-century painters whose romantic landscapes evoke that period’s exploration and settlement of the American wilderness. Often subtle symbols an ominous sunset, a pair of startled deer convey the darker side of this. His style and sense of composition are quite different from those of an artist like Albert Bierstadt, whose work he admires. What Fisher has in common with the School is a sophisticated personal iconography, and when you see enough of his paintings, these symbols unfold into a story one that is both timeless and urgent.