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The tender discord of dystopia: Fiona Buchanan

The first time I talked to Fiona Buchanan about her work we considered the luxury of ugly painting. The second time we talked about the relationship of the Socratic Method to her art practice at large. We further bonded as fan-girls of Issy Wood. Wood, a young British painter, builds metaphors and cringe-based comedies through a string of oddly atmospheric paintings that are a mashup of portraiture and auction-house catalog images. To understand Wood’s work, we both agreed that you need to look at the continuum of output from her practice rather than any single painting as a standalone “masterwork“. Although this may be true with any artist, it seems specifically pertinent not only to Wood’s oeuvre but also to that of Buchanan. 

In her paintings, Buchanan is acutely conscious of not wanting to pander to or attract the eye in a conventional, beauty queen kind of way. Her colour palette is notable and features difficult combinations and challenging, non-decorative hues. Buchanan describes it as “semi-garish” even when featuring muddy tones, reflective of synthetic food, artificial substances and something she calls the “ugliness of anti-nature”. Additionally, Buchanan desires to not dictate meaning to us in a linear narrative. Her aim is, rather, for her work to remain in the open-ended realm of potentiality through the creation of a non-space kind of space. Seeing her practice as a continuum of open-ended questions, one leading to the next through each subsequent painting, Buchanan’s philosophical approach echoes the query-led dialogues fundamental to Socratic elicitation: question, analyze, and simplify. 

With the loose hand, off-key colours, and quirky-quotidian subject material, you would be forgiven for thinking that Buchanan approaches the making of her paintings in a comfortable and casual way. In fact, she is intensely serious about formal and material  concerns related to traditional oil painting becoming even more technical and reductive in recent works. The Socratic aim of identifying “general characteristics shared by particular instances” is expressed through the application of oil paint to render light and atmosphere. Curiously, this focus may position Buchanan as leaning more towards illuminist painters like JW Turner, the Barbizon or the Hudson River School than other genre painters because of her emphasis on light and atmosphere as the true subject of the paintings 

Buchanan is aiming for a depiction of non-space in as concise a painting language as possible. The idea of non-space carries with it the conundrum of a Zen koan and, like a koan both the question and the answer (the non-answer) folds back upon itself as an abstraction. In Buchanan’s continued line of production — the questioning and the subsequent distillation — her non-space is a mood and tone based on light and shadow and the mere indication, the abstraction, of any unnecessary edges or boundaries. 

The painting Shy Car (2020) provides just enough information for the viewer to read upholstery and drapery as symbols of a generic domestic interior. There could also be teeth or dentures involved. Hondai Cilantro (2019) incorporates cinematographic “God rays” and a reflected sunset into the physical body of the car. I asked Buchanan why she started painting cars and she explained that it was a way to challenge both conventional genres and her background in traditional art training. She had also just returned from a road trip so a car seemed as good a subject as any. The car literally became the vehicle for making paintings as she transitioned from her focus at that moment on abstract work back into the realm of representation. With time, the cars gained additional meaning as surrogates for figures with distinct characters in her signature post-apocalyptic environment. 

Another shift is underway in the studio. The artist has given herself a new, self-described “useless” challenge to paint paintings with space that is neither a landscape nor an interior. In these new works, her new domestic environments become even more open-ended, fully resisting any read as a box with four walls. Everyday objects have usurped the motif of the car while retaining the same function. While the cars were imagined out of the mind of the artist these new objects represent a parallel shift, one away from invention and back to painting from observation. However, a cool and intentional detachment remains. Buchanan confirmed for me that as part of her aim to avoid both sentimentality and specificity, while not chosen entirely at random, the objects she paints are usually impersonal and borrowed out of random photos found on the web. 

Surrealism plays a role in a kind of angsty and thwarted manner true to the zeitgeist of our contemporary times. “Squashiness” is a distinctive quality evident in Buchanan’s subjects from her abandoned cars, to thrift store armchairs, and studio-kitchen mugs. This squashiness when rendered in her limited and melancholic palette is like the cute surrealism of emojii’s gone wrong. I do not use the word “cute” as a pejorative here. It is the contrast of the deformed, cushiony shapes in her sombre and likely dystopian atmospheres creating the eerie playfulness that keeps you looking at the work. The intimate scale of the more recent paintings further seduces you. Shy Car is a brushy and petite 10” x 8” and Untitled Mud is a similar scale. This reduction of size softens the sonic qualities I imagine for the work causing me to lean in closely as if listening to a tenderly discordant phrase of music played in a thoughtful pianissimo.

About the artist: Fiona Buchanan was born in Swampscott, Massachusetts and received a BFA in painting from Boston University. She has participated in residencies at Yale Norfolk summer school of art, the Wassaic Project Residency Program, and the Jentel Artist Residency. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. More information can be found here: Fionabuchanan.net and on Instagram: @firnonbonorco.

About the writer: Jennifer Mawby is a contemporary artist and sometimes curator and art writer with a focus on projects for artists using accessible language. Jennifer is the co-founder and director of Vantage Art Projects. Her work can be found here: www.jjtmstudio.com and on Instagram: @jenniferjeanmawby.