From his structural films of the 1960s and ’70s through his architectural painting installations begun in the ’90s, Santa Monica-based artist Morgan Fisher has continuously probed the nature of perception and representation. His explorations often take place through the process of closely examining and often upending established systems or codes, such as the visual formulas of Hollywood films or the properties of the color spectrum. For his latest show, Fisher mines the structural schema of an artifact from his family history, producing a body of paintings that draw from a 1935 booklet produced by General Houses, Inc., a prefabricated home manufacturer founded by his father, Howard T. Fisher. The booklet, Exterior and Interior Color Beauty, contains examples of three-color combinations selected for each room of the home. The booklet’s text promises that its “color-flow” system will “simplify” and “facilitate immediate selection” of paint colors for the home.
Fisher’s paintings, each realized in acrylic house paint on three abutting wood panels (measuring about 24 by 30 inches overall), represent enlarged replicas of the paint chips printed in the booklet. A large rectangle corresponds to wall color, with narrow rectangles on the top for ceiling hue and on the right side for trim. In their translation from the printed page to the painted panel, however, the chips undergo a distinct materialization. The raw wooden edges of the panels underscore their objecthood. Moreover, the flatly painted surfaces echo the planes of the gallery’s white walls, upon which they are mounted.
In the exhibition, as in the booklet (a facsimile was available for perusal at the gallery’s front desk), the paint selections for different types of rooms were divided into distinct spaces. Moving from the front gallery to the back gallery, colors progressed from the dusky, soft hues suggested for the living room and dining room into the slightly more cheerful combinations recommended for the bedrooms and kitchen.
Each painting was hung at eye level in a landscape orientation, momentarily evoking a 19th-century landscape painting adorning the walls of a well-appointed living room. But what type of “landscape” do these pictures represent? While the works are formally similar, perhaps, to Josef Albers’s series “Homage to the Square,” the point of reference is not the abstract realm of pure color interaction, but rather decor and General Houses, Inc.’s conventions for a pleasurable home. In this aspect, these paintings represent a distinct moment in the 20th century, when anxiety around shifting conceptions of the family unit was allayed by design’s ability to create a soothing domestic space in the face of the stimulation of modern life. The moment precedes Albers’s postwar color experiments. Just as Fisher’s film work questions the construction of the film environment in both avant-garde and Hollywood productions, these paintings slyly point toward the connections between design, industry and the avant-garde.