Here in the Pacific Northwest, as the sun takes its annual rest behind shrouded clouds, we find ourselves at the start of winter, a time of year when we retire to our homes and creativity flows to the snap of firelit wood. Simone Fischer, a Portland-based, multidisciplinary artist responds to the call of the season and employs winter for rest, reflection and art-making. Her solo exhibition, “OFFAL,” on view at Astoria Visual Arts through November 28th, highlights what Fischer terms the “poetics of iron.”
Fischer is equally a garden enthusiast and “OFFAL” centers on food, more specifically, on the un-food or waste product found in today’s agriculture. The exhibition text gives the following definition for the word: “the entrails and internal organs of an animal used as food / refuse or waste material / refuse from a process / from af ‘off’ + vallen ‘to fall.’” The word, as pronounced, is a homophone of “awful.” This comedic irony is laced throughout the show which critiques the ethics of our current food economy under late capitalism and begs the question: “How awful has it really become?”
As guests walk into the gallery, they are immediately confronted with Fischer’s installation series POWER RELATIONS (2020) which includes a steel light sculpture and crushed grocery cart. The light sculpture, containing rows of fluorescent bulbs stripped of color and held up by a fabricated steel channel armature produces a dull glow, reminiscent of a dimly-lit grocery store aisle. Fischer accounts for the horizontal stripping of the sculpture as a (loose) reference to the American flag and nod to the sterile environment of corporate America; its dependence on steel for support serves as a metaphor for the fragility of our capitalistic society. The crushed, empty grocery cart, where Fsicher has distorted the bottom section and wheels, reflects our own, individual consumption. Fischer, who sees the cart as a figurative piece, reminds us of our own isolation under capitalism, our crushed bodies and the things we carry along with it. Ironically, as I left the gallery, I saw a lonely grocery cart residing on the shadowed side streets of downtown Astoria.
Fischer’s 2019 installation Steel handbag includes a steel stand with a plastic bag and steel container with chain-link handles suspended on respective ends. The orientation suggests a scale, though since the bar is horizontal the objects appear to be of equal weights. The plastic bag is embellished with red Swarovski crystals outlining the iconic rose and “thank you” imagery found on take-out bags. Both containers provide similar functions, however one is easily discarded while the other is not. I see this installation as a nod to what Fischer calls the “performance of consumption,” highlighting that our act of consuming typically ends with discard, yet the items we easily throw away contain value in their function.
These are not the only containers found in the exhibit. Curator Laurel McLaughlin encouraged Fischer to include emptied wine bottles, beer cans and even cigarette containers around the gallery to highlight the presence of these waste products/vessels. Fischer uses yellow, red, blue and white flocking to adorn the containers, also reminiscent of marketing and the use of primary colors to sell objects to consumers. The scattered containers provide cohesion for a strong setting throughout the gallery, the mark of human existence and where what we typically discard is seen as ornamental.
Around the corner, Fischer’s triptych Steel/Steal (2020) hangs on the gallery wall. Here, Fischer exhibits three replicated two-dimensional steel pieces depicting a man taking shelter underneath a Rockstar energy drink sign, a “Steel Reserve” sign and a dollar sign highlight the background. Along with the flocked vessels, these pieces are reminiscent of the Pop Art commercial genre, perhaps even a nod to the 1964 exhibition American Supermarket. The triptych’s texture is interesting: Fischer oxidizes rust and creates abstract lines of etchings onto the surface, which creates a worn look.
Rust, like mold, presents a type of wearing on surfaces that grows over time. To Fischer, rust is used to “express the tension between love, rage, and shame in my heart in relation to a landscape I’ve had little control of.” It’s a nod to her former neighborhood on 82nd Street and as she remembers, “landscapes riddled with addictive advertisements.” The play-on words of “steel” and “steal” further highlight the class disparity, those who must steal in order to obtain resources and the ramifications for stealing within our police state.
Adjacent to Steel/Steal, Fischer and McLaughlin, hung a warning, another two-dimensional steel etching. a warning successfully counteracts the class narrative in Steel/Steal by highlighting the rich through an abstracted chandelier, an image Fischer took on her cell phone in New York. The piece, which illuminates in light, alludes to the grandiose of the upper class, yet as Fischer has pixelated the chandelier, viewers are confronted with the reality of the piece. How sustainable is wealth and what are the ramifications of hoarding money? Together, Steel/Steal punctuated by a warning creates conversation, a representation of the disparaging gap between classes.
In the center of the gallery sits Fischer’s installation series Ellison (1950/2021) and Rearview exit (2019), arguably the highlight of the show. Rearview exit offers the outline of a suspended, steel doorway that recalls the doorway from her childhood home that is then draped with photographs printed on chiffon. The diaphanous representations are a compilation of signage we see as we drive through our urban landscapes: the McDonald’s archway, a Marlboro ad, various restaurant signs, and even a marquee that reads “SEE YOU IN HELL MY FRIENDS.” Behind the door, dried Nardello chili peppers hang in the light of the gallery window. Fischer considers this a self-portrait, bridging the gap between old Portland and newly developed areas.
In front of Rearview exit, rests Ellison, a shrine-like offering of three different seeds, green beans, fennel and echinacea from Fischer’s garden, atop a hand-made rug, crocheted by her Great-Great-Great Grandmother, Ellison, in 1950. The offerings extend an invite to the viewer to look through the doorway, even imagining walking through it, past corporate advertising, toward a more sustainable future.
Annie Eskelin, the Director of Astoria Visual Arts, explains that the coastal town is an apt home for this show because it opens dialogue with rural farmers about the effects of consumerism on their trade. Fischer creates a connection between theory and praxis, OFFAL provides dialogue around such themes like the concept of food scarcity, delicacy of the food chain and sustainability through local agriculture.
I enjoyed the dreamy, part-dystopian, part-utopian feel of the show, in which Fischer and McLaughlin have built a world where the ramifications of our own consumption is met with a tenderness and reminder that the earth, which provides us with the goodness of green beans and chili peppers, still exists to support us. Fischer’s use of material is notable, chiffon against steel, crystal against plastic and even the emphasis of bloodied animal remains (from the title) counteracting the earthiness of seeds.
Fischer is a lifelong gardener and during the pandemic, she shifted her priorities from working in the studio to planting seeds in her garden. Raised by her mother and maternal grandparents on the outskirts of Portland, Fischer grew up with an appreciation for, as she claims, “all things dirt.” “Gardens bring us together just like art does,” says Fischer, whose family eventually created the garden project, Salvation Gardens, a community-minded garden seeking to provide agricultural resources to local communities.
As the show closes and Fischer embarks on her annual winter refuge, she intends to expand on the ideas in “OFFAL” by providing community meals through Salvation Gardens. Visitors to “OFFAL” can participate in this extended practice; Fischer provided small bundles of seeds from her garden as a take-away for gallery visitors. The offering can grow throughout the 2022 season and beyond.
Astoria Visual Arts, a federally recognized organization since 1989 supports the arts around Oregon’s north coast by providing opportunities for exhibition, residencies, and enhanced education for area youth. OFFAL runs through November 30th, open Fridays, 12 – 6 pm; Saturdays, 12 – 4 pm; Sundays, 12 – 3 pm; and by appointment. For more information, please visit astoriavisualarts.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our visual arts coverage is made possible in part by support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.