Urs Fischer (b. 1973)
Urs Fischer (b. 1973)

Original Problem

Urs Fischer (b. 1973)
Original Problem
signed and dated 'Urs Fischer 2014' (on the reverse)
aluminum panel, aluminum honeycomb, two-component epoxy adhesive, two-component epoxy primer, galvanized steel rivet nuts, acrylic primer, gesso, acrylic ink, spray enamel, acrylic silkscreen medium and acrylic paint
96 x 72 in. (243.8 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 2014.
Sadie Coles, London
Private collection, Sydney
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Lot Essay

Urs Fischer’s 2014 Original Problem is a striking and visually arresting example of the artist’s Problem Paintings series, which features a pair of spliced heads obscured by an egg. In this case the egg is a 100-year-old egg (also known as a Century egg), a much prized Chinese delicacy consumed at banquets and celebrations, it’s vibrant yellow yolk discolored with tinges of green. The two faces—film stars Vivian Leigh and Herbert Butterfield—are completely obscured by the interior of the egg, with only the tops of the heads, an ear and parts of clothing to identify the well-appointed pair. Her pearls and blue blouse and his grey suit and tie suggest that the images derive from a pair of formal portraits, perhaps of the Hollywood studio variety, as is the case with most of Fischer’s problem paintings. Nevertheless, as with much of Fischer’s practice, ambiguity abounds and their identities are heavily concealed and largely undecipherable to the uninitiated viewer. A rare example from the series, Original Problem features prominent streaks and dabs of blue and white paint and, as such, is among the most fully wrought and visually affecting examples. Original Problem shows Fischer’s penchant for the bizarre, shocking, and macabre while maintaining his potent sense of humor and visual wit.

The Swiss-American Fischer, born in 1973, is widely recognized as a leading artist of his generation. Stylistically diverse and thoroughly unbound by material limitations, Fischer’s art epitomizes the present attitude toward authorship and artistic production. Often relying on sophisticated fabrication techniques to realize his wonderfully ambitious projects, Fischer’s practice is perhaps best characterized by its audaciousness. Original Problem reflects this fact: at exactly eight feet tall, the picture is a combination of state-of-the-art commercial printing methods and powerful digital imaging techniques bolstered by sharp compositional skills and a measured, sophisticated approach to color and composition. For Fischer, ambitious technical achievements are more than a means to an end; rather, they often serve to inform the viewer’s understanding of a given work.

In the case of the present work, the pristine finish, hyper-crisp image and obvious industrial fabrication, combined with the obscured celebrity portraits, serve to connect the work to Pop Art. Updating the techniques of hand-inked photo-silkscreen, pioneered in the early ‘60s by Andy Warhol, Fischer uses a more sophisticated silkscreen technique more closely aligned with modern industrial imaging. Indeed, Original Problem is, in some ways, Pop Art pushed to two polar extremes. At once celebrating commercial processes and celebrity worship, it simultaneously lampoons them, asking the viewer to think about how much visual detail is too much; and to what extent can the celebrity veneration progress until it is met with a fermented egg to the face?

While relying on an updated Pop Art production method, Fischer channels one of Surrealism’s most recognizable visual strategies: the obscuring, jarring visual juxtaposition. Employed most famously by René Magritte in his 1964 The Son of Man, the strategy serves to frustrate the viewer and establish the artist’s position of power. By leaving the most important part of an ostensible portrait—the face—obscured, the viewer is stifled and denied the basic pleasure of connecting with the painting on a human level. Fischer, in splicing two heads together, furthers this surrealist notion. But, by using an egg in place of a handsome green apple, Fischer regrounds the image in his own reality. In Fischer’s artistic universe, decayed and decrepit objects often serve as reminders of impermanence and the passage of time. Throughout his career, Fischer has consistently turned to food to illustrate this point, perhaps never to greater effect than in Original Problem.

Drawn to it throughout his career, Fischer views food as a useful metaphor for change, an omnipresent and guiding theme of his practice. Fischer explained his thought process in a 2010 interview, saying, “Wax that melts in itself creates a more beautiful perfection than you can create. There is a perfection in the movement. The way food decomposes is predictable. It’s a predictable process: it always rots in the same way. You’re actually in control when you let nature do its thing” (U. Fischer quoted in M. Gioni, “This is my Grandmother, She Makes Really Genius Cakes, an Interview with Urs Fischer”, in Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2010. p. 61). Original Problem captures this trans-material fascination succinctly, neatly summarizing Fischer’s interest in the passage of time. Original Problem’s yolk bears an unmistakable visual resemblance to the melted wax in Fischer’s life-size candle sculptures; its consistency is brought about by decay, which, as Fischer states, is both a known, quantitative process and one ultimately susceptible to chance.

This element of chance is both carefully cultivated and, seemingly paradoxically, controlled throughout Fischer’s practice. Preferring to let exist independently from himself as the artist, Fischer often works with impermanent or inherently transient objects, the egg is perhaps the most immediate example of an object always in a state of flux. Since the earliest days of his career, Fischer has returned to the egg as an exemplar of this inevitable uncertainty that he views as useful as both a metaphor for—and a physical example of—life cycles and their natural processes. Original Problem features one of—if not the—most visually impactful examples of the egg in Fischer’s oeuvre. Its advanced state of deterioration perfectly and directly captures the essence of Fischer’s fascination with the egg and its allegorical potential.

One of the most recognizable and influential artists working today, Fischer’s practice has seen him achieve new heights of success in the last decade. Honored with a global array of museum shows and public commissions, Fischer’s incessant knack for visual drama, combined with his stylistic restlessness and continual reinvention, have firmly ensconced him in the vanguard of 21st century art. His Problem Painting series, in particular, has proven especially significant in the contemporary climate of digitally informed art. Gaining in relevance as art turns increasingly towards new media techniques, Fischer’s Problem Paintings are among the most visible and iconic images of the last decade.

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