Personal and public history often maintain a curious, even distant relationship in an artist’s work. But in the work of some truly visionary artists, the two fuse and illuminate each other, and possibly create a third entity that is something different entirely. The work of Chicago mixed-media artist Tony Fitzpatrick uses the iconography of early comics and other symbols from his childhood to create a panoramic picture of Chicago—and America as a whole.
“My work’s always been at least a little bit about storytelling, and I’m fascinated by looking backward and forward,” he notes. “When you do that, you sometimes arrive at the nation we now find ourselves in.” Behind every artist, the 53-year-old believes, there’s likely a failed cartoonist. Steeped in stuff like Dick Tracy, early Marvel comic books and Mad Magazine, he didn’t realize until later that they were works of art.
But they could also be subversive, as he found in Catholic school when he shocked the nuns with drawings of naked women with bird’s heads, or vice versa. “It wasn’t the nudity as much as the break with reality,” he recalls. “I learned a little bit about the power of art. I found out that making pictures was my hammer and nails, that I had a little bit of power.”
Those images recur in the American Suite and Nickel History series of etchings. The first 20 in the Nickel History series—titled ‘The Nation of Heat”—are part of a planned 100 pieces. There’s “The Blue Girl” with hat and blush in a shade to match her bird body; Dick Tracy; Patricia Neal from the movie Hud. “Bazooka Hulk” is the comic-book Hulk, but he’s pink; “His superpower is he smells like bubble gum,” Fitzpatrick says.
“The Halloween Parade,” based on the 1989 Lou Reed song, intersects personal and public history in a poignant way. “The first time I came to New York was on Halloween 1978,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “The Halloween parade was going. Years later, Lou Reed wrote his song about the specter of what AIDS had taken from the community of people in the West Village, and what the ’80s hath wrought.” Silhouettes of four figures emit a “word balloon” with exclamation points, as though at the horrors of history.
These five-color etchings are infused with the grit of the artist’s city, also evoking the sepia tones of historical photographs. There are also a lot of moths in the series. “Moths have troubling kinds of definitions in lots of cultures,” he observes. “They’re beautiful, they’re destructive.” A symbol of danger as well as heightened awareness, they are an ambiguous metaphor.
Fitzpatrick’s Chicago could be the United States in microcosm. “I come from a city of storytellers: Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko. I’m not a postmodern kind of artist,” he maintains. “Chicago’s a city that was built on the work ethic. It’s a city of messy vitalities, of remarkable architecture, poetry and grace, and immense cruelty.” The same could be said of the subject matter and aesthetic of his works, coming out of a somewhat surreal comic “lingua franca” as he would say, evoking ongoing drama, struggle and danger.
If Fitzpatrick’s single panels tell stories, they tend to do so enigmatically. If individually they are like panels taken out of context from some intense comic-book drama—the look is pre-”graphic novel”—taken together they evoke a grand, almost cinematic panorama. The effect is like a novel, or a collection of short stories—unified by emotional tone and color palette—yet astonishingly diverse, full of painstaking detail that shows he is able to express much in a small space—the pieces in the Nickel History series are all 3 inches by 3 inches.
Kayo Gallery owner Shilo Jackson tried to get Fitzpatrick to exhibit here for several years. “I’m thrilled at the chance to host the show,” she says. “He’s a very talented renaissance man, and the etchings are the perfect introduction to his work for Salt Lake [City].”
Fitzpatrick discusses his works eloquently on his Wordpress blog, not common for a visual artist. “I spent a lot of time in the past few months among the Occupy people, in Chicago and New York [where he presented his play Stations Lost],” he states. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve got the nation we deserve. All the greed and apathy comes to the fore.” He dislikes that artists in the past several decades have become wannabe 1-percent-ers.
Art is still a heroic activity for him. “Even in the most satirical comic books, there’s always some kind of grand heroic gesture, or at least a narrative that favored good over evil. Artists have changed whole worlds before.”
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