An Interview with Julia Fish


Alumna Julia Fish ’76 speaks about a new series of paintings debuting at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, the home in Chicago that has provided inspiration for the past two decades and her Portland roots.

A native of Oregon, Julia Fish currently resides in Chicago, where she is Professor of Studio Arts in the School of Art and Design, College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago. Her paintings and drawings have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Fish’s work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art.


Threshold, North [ spectrum : blue ], 2009–2010, Photo: Tom Van Eynde

Untitled Magazine You’re currently working on a series of new work for the 2010 Whitney Biennial. What are you working on?

Julia Fish I’ll be presenting three Threshold paintings. I imagined working on a set of six, and with the invitation to participate in the Whitney, had to focus on these three. They are, in their own way, a continuation of work that has been my focus for the last twenty years in the house here on Hermitage Avenue.

U Do you think of your paintings as surfaces or objects?

JF When I talk about my own painting and when I talk with students about making paintings, I very much emphasize the fact that they’re making an object. That depiction and illusion are immediately contradicted by the fact that it’s an object. It has dimension. It pushes forward from the wall. There’s something tangible there. That’s a very important part of my work.


Entry Fragment Two [ Spectre ], 1998, Photo: Tom Van Eynde

As far as the surface of the painting, one of the great benefits of referencing the house is that each site has its own nature. In the case of the tile it has its own system. I think if the work is in relation to vertical surfaces, that’s one of touch. The eye and the hand are connected in the sense of tactility and touch. If it’s the floor, or surfaces that I move across, then I need to activate perspective in a very slight way. Or how to generate the fact that I’ve reconstituted them at actual size, that they are not flat. That there’s some kind of spatial shift.

Hopefully it allows one to think that one is observing this in a slight sense of motion, or a sense of carrying it visually, rather than, say, a facsimile of an object or an architectural fragment mounted on the wall. The Entry paintings and the early paintings of floors and thresholds all share a sense of the lower register being the element that’s closest to one, with the upper part of the painting, suggesting, ever so slightly, forward motion.

U And in many ways, by putting a fragment of the floor on the wall, you open it up into a space of observation.

JF Yes, I hope that is the case for the viewer. It’s certainly the case for me as the maker. I’m working in a studio that is adjacent to the house. It’s across a small garden. So I’m not actually painting in the house itself. That slight dislocation has allowed exactly what you just described—a sense of re-visualizing, reimagining and recapturing that experience of living in one place but working in another.


Photo of the artist by Richard Cahan

U I wanted to talk to you about your roots in Portland. In 1979 a group of Portland artists, including yourself and Barbara Black, helped to found the Blackfish Gallery, which is of course still in operation.

JF Yes, it’s an incredible story of longevity.

U And this was a time in Portland when other galleries such as Jamison Thomas Gallery, Augen Gallery and Elizabeth Leach Gallery were gaining traction and laying a foundation for an art scene that continues to thrive today. What was it like in Portland at that time?

JF One thing that I should make clear—my name and Barbara’s name were a kind of convenient handle, a name for our organization when a much larger group of people formed a discussion group to think about forming a collective, and the name stuck. But I have to defer to the fact that it was a collaboration of so many more people than the name might suggest—it was a kind of consensus.

There was open mindedness and a high degree of energy—we wanted to represent serious work and also work that wasn’t represented in other ways. Within the group there were people that had been my teachers and others working independently. There was not one institutional affiliation. It was very positive. And we talked and met and determined a way to structure ourselves. We did that before we ever found the space and found a way to think in a fair way about governing ourselves, decision making and sharing the many and varied responsibilities of opening a space to the public.

U What was your experience studying at PNCA in the 1970s?

JF Well, at that time it was still the Museum School. And its association with the Museum’s collection was an important part of my education.


[ shadow drawing ] for Living Rooms: NorthEast , 2002, , Photo: Tom Van Eynde

What was it like then? It was small. I think in terms of population, like a large family. The first year students knew the fourth year students. It was at a time when a student could be in school five days a week—morning afternoon and even some evenings—without having to have two part-time jobs. There was a kind of focus to the program that was a huge benefit for me. I had great teachers. That was the crux of it. I had great teachers, and saw them year after year.

U Can you name some of them?

JF I was lucky—Robert Hanson, Anne Johnson, Harry Widman, George Johanson, Eunice Parsons, Lenny Pitkin in printmaking. And I know some of them are still teaching. And there were certainly others.

We were really in a different moment. Technology had not become such a part of education as it is now, as it certainly is in my school here in Chicago here too. I would study drawing with one teacher and have that same individual teach a painting class. There was the continuity of studying different disciplines with the same person. Mike Russo taught art history and he made a case for the strengths of an artist teaching that history class. I know Anne Johnson has gone on to be an important voice in that respect—when she started teaching, it was from the perspective of an artist, yet she had all of the references that an art historian might have.

That was the important thing about the School. That one individual could address several different kinds of courses and somehow find time to do their own work. It’s still so impressive.

by Katherine Bovee
Interview by Katherine Bovee
All artwork images courtesy Julia Fish and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.

— Posted on 03/04 at 09:59 AM

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