Homa Taj (IMDb) in Conversation with Artist and Film Producer JOE FISHER | Connect with Homa on Twitter & Facebook
Homa Taj – Can we talk about your background a little? You were born in Cyprus, came to this country at age 12 I believe? You are now distinctly a New York artist. Is there anything in your background which influences you today?
Joe Fisher – Homa, thank you for doing this interview. I was 10 when I came to NY, so you are pretty close. I was born in Cyprus, but my parents left with me when I was six-months old. You know, it was really a detention camp for WWII refugees. It’s actually had a very strong impact on me that terrible injustices happen to good and decent people. Other than that, I had a pretty standard life. At a teacher’s suggestion, I studied art probably to get around my lack of English. She also encouraged me to go to the Music and Art History.
You know now that you asked about my past, kind of funny in hindsight, I always hear artists talk of expressing themselves, I guess I was doing that in lieu of speaking English?
HT – You’ve worked as a producer for quite a while, working at times with pretty famous people, but I notice you worked with some who are also artists, like Andres Serrano, Larry Clark, and John Waters, did you feel a connection because of your being a painter?
JF – I was executive producer, which in this industry is not the same thing as producer, hence more in the business end. Fact was, I started realizing I wanted to focus more on art, and felt I had abandoned it. You see, initially I saw film as a creative outlet, but as time went on it was more business. Most of the interaction was production oriented and very little personal back and forth. Time is expensive in this field and there are many people and distractions, so it’s not an ideal environment to chitchat. Having said all that, it was a rewarding experience, and I did feel some connection, sometimes it meant color correcting a Serrano picture, sometimes making sure a prop works for John Waters.
HT – How did you choose to become a painter? You come from a family of artist-filmmakers but who started it first …
JF – Easy, my father. I was the first in my family, but I say my father because he was a fastidious pattern maker for fashion designers, so I think he planted the seed. He was a perfectionist and fastidious, doesn’t that sound like an artist? I told my family that my intention was to go to Pratt, which had a professional career approach by teaching graphics, design, and typography in addition to painting, so that you’d come out with skills to earn a living. It was my way of getting their approval to go to Pratt, but I paid “my own way” with grants, loans, summer work, and when the tuition was doubled I transferred to Cooper Union, which had free tuition.
HT – What did you learn from each of the artists with whom you have worked … about being a visual artist? Here are the names of the ones that come to mind — Nicholas Ray is mostly famous for directing Rebel without a Cause. You participated during – Wim Wenders’ filming of his end of life, “lightning over water,” in fact one of your paintings Nick Ray owned is in that film. The controversial artist Andreas Serrano did a documentary about “History of Sex” based his provocative sex photos. Larry Clark was slated to direct one of your film projects, did some commercials, and then, my favorite, the one and only John Waters, who directed and wrote “A Dirty Shame.”
That should get you started? Can you describe what was it like and how did it impact your art?
JF – It’s kind of intimidating when you put it all together like that. Keep in mind that these are professional alliances, not friendly gatherings, and invariably famous people come into the scene because of the nature of the industry.
Nick Ray was a personal friend along with Susan, his wife. Wim was an admirer of Nick, who made, in addition to “Lightening Over Water”, another film called “The American Friend” which starred Bruno Ganz. They were supposed to use my paintings and studio because the character was an art forger; some things were changed so that didn’t happen. Nick had a couple of paintings of mine, so they ended up in Wim’s first film. They were friends and it was not a business.
Larry Clark was supposed to direct a treatment of Susan’s book about Nick Ray, from a script by Oren Moverman, but it just didn’t materialize. Larry Clark was really big with young kids. The company VANS seized on that, so he filmed their commercials with skateboarders on top of a roof. John Waters is a genuinely nice guy, generous and loyal to his friends and workers. When riding in an elevator with him, someone would hesitatingly ask, “are you…” and he would finish it off saying, yes I’m John Waters with a reassuring smile. When I hurt my foot on the set in Baltimore and had to go back to NY, while driving I got a phone call on my cell from him. He heard that I got hurt and wanted to make sure I was OK and he was concerned. That gives you some idea about his nature.
Andres was a very nice, polite guy. He was very moved by his friend’s passing from AIDS, and so he was assembling the friend’s footage into a documentary about the photo shoots of “The History of Sex” series. I enjoyed color correcting his photos for the film, but that’s it. In all these contacts, there was no further personal involvement, just one very unusual Christmas gift from John Waters.
HT – I’m curious about the Christmas card, what was it?
JF – Well, it was a big cockroach inside a glass Christmas tree ornament.
HT – You mentioned Susan’s book, this was Susan Ray his wife?
JF – That’s right, she wrote a book called “I was interrupted” about Nick which would’ve been the title of that movie.
HT – … Now you have committed your painting to full time. What was the call to dedicate your time on a full-time basis to painting?
JF – I never left it entirely, it’s not just making up for lost time. I feel energized and glad to be painting full-time again.
It was always a balance between supporting myself, with a family with kids, and doing art. By working in films, I felt connected to visual art so it took the place of art. But then, it got to the point that unless I became a director, or writer, or found some way of expressing directly, it wasn’t enough.
HT – Given your past experience, have you thought about doing video art?
JF – Yes, I have friends who do this, though they call it film. In the business, videos meant TV programming, which is what we did. The technology has advanced so much they don’t need all that expensive gear which is liberating. I can see why you ask, perhaps because I mentioned I liked to see motion in my art. I don’t see going that way, but who knows.
HT – Do you miss making films?
JF – Not at all, again, being in the business end is very consuming and gets away from creativity, so actually I’m relieved. The idea of film as my own project is intriguing, but not at the moment.
HT – Let’s talk about your work more, I notice different media – paint on paper, acrylic, drawings and what you refer to as “paper constructions”… – can you tell me about the differences? Do you have a preference?
JF – It’s not about preference, the results are different and complement each other. I really like paper constructions, don’t think of them as collage. While they start out as studies, they’re stand-alone pieces. The idea was to block out colors without having to paint it, thus being able to move quicker. It also allows me to overlap and layer shapes, something which creates depth, perhaps a bit of illusionism, but still flat and respecting the physical surface. There’s no drawing or gestures in them so it’s mostly about shapes, positioning and overlapping.
I call it ‘painting on paper’ because I use acrylic paints. It disciplines me from too much buildup of paint, maintaining freshness. Painting on canvas is different, allowing more buildup, and process. The big difference in all of this is the size. Large, say 5 to 6 ft or more, allows me to move my entire arm which affects drawing in color and painting strokes, drips, spatter and stain. I work either pre-stretched or un-stretched. Smaller paintings change things because body motion is confined to the wrist, so it looks more like the paper constructions in paint, more studied and careful.
With regard to different media, I’m thinking about doing sculpture as an extension of the paper constructions, but for now I’m painting.
HT – You use a combination of geometric shapes and gestural painterly, or drawn in paint interwoven with these shapes. Talk about your compositional choices …
JF – I seem to be drawn to dynamic things, which allow for conflict, which makes things more alive. This “implied motion” is not such a new idea. I’m not changing any perception nor innovating in this respect, but I feel more challenged this way. In the past I did try to do more balanced work, which I felt, was good, but, I came against a wall where I found myself painting the “next” painting which was going to be a variation and further exploration of a focused idea. I guess it was a choice, either put down the brushes, or take a chance on screwing things up, combine things that are not harmonious, without a specific target. That meant that every piece would be different. As far as the geometric shapes, it goes back to a time when I worked in a more minimal style and it continues to be an important thread throughout my work. It also stems from my recent studies cutting out shapes from stock colored paper – so even random pieces keep a certain geometry.
HT – Aside from your work containing these disparate elements as you describe, they seem to differ at times from one another, is that your intention?
JF – I’m glad you mention this. Back when I got out of art school, the trend was to do a “body of work” which really meant creating a recognizable brand stylistically, so one painted z shapes, another painted circles, on and on, you could tell immediately who did what. We’ve all been through innovations, artists who knock us dead with incredible installations, and I could go on. For me, it’s about doing something that interests me at the moment. Therefore, the next time may be different, or look like a departure.
Personally, I see some familiar traces in all the work, sometimes it’s the color, sometimes it’s this need to contrast techniques, or shapes. I’m not as concerned about ‘branding’ to create a distinctive style.
HT – You will exhibit your work in Industry and Arts buildings in Brooklyn, will this include any earlier works, or only recent work?
JF – It will be only recent work, current within 2 years.
HT – Which artists have influenced your work, and how?
JF – Very early on it was the expressionists, I saw something in all of them. At Cooper Union I studied with both an abstract expressionist, Nicholas Marsicano, and an expressionist pop artist, Nicholas Krushenick, if that makes any sense, who pushed me out of expressionism and into more minimalist work. I think Frank Stella was important to me; he was really pushing painting into a new era. At the time, conceptual work was popular, but then painting took on new life with “lyrical abstraction”. These painters, reminded me that it’s OK to follow what’s inside. It’s hard to pick out one of them, but I knew Jack Seery, who impressed me. I saw his loft full of paint and canvases on the floor and I got hooked. From then on, it was all about paint, color, drawing, airbrush, whatever flowed. My favorite quote is by Barnet Newman who said, when asked why he paints, “I like to have something to look at when I’m done.” It’s so simple.
HT – Where do you find inspiration for your work? You paint abstract pictures which are fairly cerebral … How do you know when or where to begin… and, when to stop? When is the picture complete… ?
JF – I don’t wait around for inspiration, that really comes from the work process, by reacting to what’s evolving. You know that statement “inspiration is mostly perspiration?” I wouldn’t say cerebral, it’s actually visceral, gut instincts at first. That’s why I start loosely, drawing, sometimes random, not fixated on one thing at the beginning. When is it complete? – is a tough question. There’s a balance between overstating and overworking versus a fresh “one shot” painting approach, and I go back and forth. There are many paintings that I ditch cause they went dead from overwork, but you have to be willing to destroy the art to get where you want. I stop if I like what I see and don’t think I can add.
HT – What technical process(s) do you use to create your paintings?
JF – Paper cutouts to model the overlaps and create a study, drawings to get the essence of what’s in my mind, brushwork, pouring paint, reworking those processes, and allowing a process history to remain as a part of the work. The smaller works require a more disciplined approach and tend to be more finely detailed. Pretty much all the work is acrylic although I’ve used oils, usually on top, when I needed brighter colors that I felt oils provided.
HT – You are a New York artist, the NY art scene, and art market, were different back in the early 1970’s when you began painting. In what ways do you think the art world has changed?
JF – It no longer matters where an artist lives and works, but somehow that New York artist identification sticks, though less and less. It’s very expensive to live in New York and many have moved out – to upstate, or to other cities – yet their work and commitment has remained the same. One of the main differences between now and then, is that today there are more separate communities. It’s not one watering hole for all, like Max’s Kansas City was; there are groupings all over the map, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Gowanus and Sunset Park, where I will be showing in the Industry and Arts building. Another difference is that the volume of artists is enormous compared to back then. Now, galleries will almost never look at any walk-in – they call it “unsolicited.” It wasn’t like that before. There was no guarantee, but at least you could leave your slides, and maybe get into a group show to start. To counteract that today, there are “open studios” all over the map; they are friendly events with more of a party-like feel. There are also lots of galleries in remote sections, some very small, so it makes up for the tight competition for galleries, but it looks like there are still many unrepresented artists.
HT – There are many filmmakers (mainly directors whom I know of) that have been visual artists – David Lynch, Pier Paolo Pasolini, – But, I don’t know of any producers? Can you think of any?
JF – I haven’t thought about this distinction, producer vs. director, but from what I’ve seen, the director is sometimes the writer, or the one with the idea or story, and wants to make things happen according to their vision. If the director gets mired in production, pre-production, funding, or anything like that, it can deflate their enthusiasm, and some just can’t do that by nature. BTW, there are also artists who are filmmakers in parallel to their art, not just those who moved on to film as you say. Robert Longo was doing it many years ago, and more recently Julian Schnabel has done amazing films all while working steadily on painting. Larry Clark remains a photographer, and there are probably many others.
You’re probably asking questions about films because I was executive producer on films and spent a part of my life doing that. As an executive producer it’s more removed from what you call the artistic part than even the producer. There’s no connection to my painting. There were some smaller films done as artworks themselves, by friends, which are intriguing and would make me consider doing films like that. One friend has made very personal films with graphics and light effects, in an almost painterly way. He submits these to many festivals, but there’s not much money in that, so he works as a film editor. Another friend is a full time journalist photographer who makes film documentaries stemming from his photography, so his film is an extension of his photography. BTW, thanks for bringing this up, it makes me think more about film possibilities.
HT – Being a painter – visual artist is like being a poet. You can stay in your studio and create works. Being a film producer, however, is a bit like what the Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier once told me, “is like being half-way between a military general and a poet.” Your thoughts.
JF – I’ve got to see your interview with Joachim Trier. I think you’re commenting on a film producer vs. a director again, and from what I’ve seen that’s pretty much true. For the painter artist it can be a lonely experience at times, but there are struggles and satisfactions in both producing and directing. Film is collaborative with many different types of people – actors, writers, producers, electricians, etc. This doesn’t mean that the director doesn’t reach inward, much like the artist or poet you mentioned. Certainly there is far more noise and distractions during productions. The producers really have their hands full no question about that.
* JOE FISHER will have a private exhibition of his new paintings at the FilmRise Gallery, 34 35th Street, 4th floor, Brooklyn, NY 11232, info 718-369-9090, Feb 25 to March 25. By appointment only.