Tommy Fitzpatrick’s most recent paintings, which debuted at Inman Gallery in November 2015, are all named after classic string games and designs, and they share a sense of serious play. Working from photographs of wooden lattices, he translates volume, perspective and light into hard-edged pattern, pairing an almost geometric articulation of space with an insistence on painted surface. That contradistinction— between flat pattern and illusionistic depth—is the knot Fitzpatrick has been untangling and retying with increasing sophistication for decades.
At first blush, Jacob’s Ladder is a straightforward depiction of a red cage starkly lit against a yellow ground. But small idiosyncrasies undercut the precise rendering: variations in hue break the yellow field into discrete shapes; errant blocks seem immune to gravity and perspective; incongruous red outlines trace shadows like racing stripes. Twin Diamonds might read as a reflection or a symmetrical armature, but nothing lines up quite right. In fact, Fitzpatrick collages his source photographs into new compositions, further subverting any naturalistic sense of volume. And yet for all the disruptions, Fitzpatrick’s handling of light and form is so clearly grounded in observation that the space of his paintings, pleated as it may be, remains tenaciously convincing.
Illusionistic depth has been the preoccupation of a great many artists for at least half a millennium, but what’s comparatively rare is Fitzpatrick’s quixotic determination to have it both ways, to tell a bald lie so appealingly that it doesn’t need to be credible. That brings us to another allusion in the exhibition’s title: the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name. Cat’s Cradle, the book, imagines the potentially disastrous consequences of reckless curiosity, and disputes the virtue of truth for its own sake. Against the pieties of science and progress, Vonnegut proposes an admittedly absurd religion that recommends itself as the most brazen—and therefore the most honest—hypocrisy in a fraudulent world. It professes, as its narrator summarizes in the final pages, “the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.”
That’s not a worldview with a solution. It’s a seesaw that needs a good sense of balance and a better sense of humor. Fitzpatrick’s paintings aren’t finally trying to convince us of anything, either; they’re content to present us with riddles, whose pleasure is less in the answer and more in the telling.
Tommy Fitzpatrick (born 1969, Dallas, Texas) lives and works in Austin, Texas. Fitzpatrick earned his BA from The University of Texas at Austin in 1991 and an MFA from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, in 1993. Recent solo exhibitions include: Cat’s Cradle, Inman Gallery, Houston (2015); Electric Labyrinth, Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas (2014); and Geometry in Reflection: Tommy Fitzpatrick and Margo Sawyer, The Gallery at the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas (2009). Fitzpatrick’s paintings are in the public collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as well as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. He is an Assistant Professor of painting at Texas State University in San Marcos.