Fort Worth conceptual artist Vernon Fisher has been known for the use of language in his painting-based installations at least since 1977. That year, he was part of group exhibition-- "American Narrative/Story Art 1967-1977"--of conceptual art. Not unlike the title of the current show, its name would seem to be completely adverse to the definition of conceptual art. Because it had not yet been codified strictly in terms of Wittgenstein, theoretical coding, and dematerialization, conceptual art back then could in fact be narrative. 84 Sparrows (1979), the first work in the show, is from this period. It consists of three elements: small cutout and numbered sparrows in different colors sitting directly on the wall; to the right, a large painting of the backside of an old bus with a short related narrative; and further to the right, pinned lower on the wall, a story box from Nancy comics. Unlike the non-linear paragraphs running across his painted surfaces in the years to come, the verbiage on the bus image bears a story-like coherence.
The title of the current survey of Fisher's work is more ironic enticement than pre-historicist vicissitude. To couple the kitsch of a big-box discount retailer and conceptualism is to spectacularly collapse lofty thinking into the flashy dung heap of popular culture. While it includes pop references to Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, and Nancy comics, it is really concerned with the sticky complexities of language, and not the Cartesian rationalism of Kosuth and Barry. An English major before he went on to art, Fisher shows us language beyond grammar, syntax, syntagmatic relations, and punctuation. Over time, from the late 1970s to the present, we find Fisher making more stand-alone paintings and using language in ways at once more direct and abstract. The most powerful installation in the show, Boat, Island, Ape (1991) is language writ large: one word, Kong, carved directly from the gallery wall. A small toy-like U-boat sits amid shards of drywall piled in front. Sounds of rainfall, radio static, the boing-boing of a coiled wire, "It's a Small World," and birds tweeting intermittently boom from speakers.
Fisher's strongest works are painting-based installations and not autonomous paintings. The combination of surface and object, painting and polymorph, brings home the democracy of media at work in Fisher's "K-mart Conceptualism." Here, like one of so many gewgaws for sale, painting is one possibility among many.