By Julia Purdy
“I have been fortunate to live in complex cluttered spaces,” wrote painter Diane Fitch in the statement for her show, “Interiors,” now on display at the Castleton Downtown Gallery until Jan. 7.
While persistent clutter defies our best attempts to organize and cull, Fitch sees something much different: lines and spaces, enclosures and openings in everyday rooms, the geometry of furnishings and objects. Her paintings hint not only that these settings have a life of their own, but that the humans that inhabit them participate in the same fabric of existence.
Strangers to us, Fitch’s friends and family may work and play in these rooms, but glowing colors, organic shapes and contrasting textures invite the viewer to share in the intimacy of a home, like slipping on a borrowed sweater.
In grad school Fitch worked a lot with still life, which is carefully arranged—but she found the periphery to be “more interesting,” she explained to the Mountain Times. She said she prefers to depict a scene as found, “to find the composition in a lived-in space.”
The result is not merely an environment for living in but a living environment, in which objects shift, appear, disappear, reappear somewhere else from canvas to canvas. A box of Kleenex has been set casually on a countertop; laptops and musical instruments are in use; tomato soup in a pan on the stove finds its way into a bowl on the table. Each setting is dynamic, subject to random fluctuations as humans use the space, and this is what Fitch aims to capture.
Standing in a gallery room lined with her work, Fitch said that while she concentrated on French Impressionism in grad school—some of the paintings here suggest Cezanne’s or Van Gogh’s techniques and use of color, as an instructor she encountered the Italian Renaissance, which was a major turning point in her evolution as a “perceptual painter,” as she calls herself. She took a sabbatical in Italy while teaching at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. “One can learn everything there is to know about making paintings by studying a Titian, a Chardin, a Vermeer,” she wrote.
Renaissance art used the human figure to provide scale for architecture and the natural world. Fitch became fascinated and began to populate her compositions with her own family and friends, beginning with a self-portrait record of her first pregnancy. She explained that she has never hired models, nor does she create portraiture as such. In her paintings, people read, play an instrument, make a cup of tea, work on their laptop, or simply provide a human presence within the clutter of everyday life. Games (including electronics), books, and music are frequent themes. “The subject of figure in the interior continues to resonate for me, as my most potent metaphor,” she wrote in the statement, “with the interior space implying inner life.”
Thus the show’s title, “Interiors.”
The paintings and drawings in this show span a decade, 2006 to 2016, and are set in domiciles from an old Ohio farmhouse to a summer house by a lake to her own “little house with walls painted in the colors of Italian frescoes” in Vermont, she told the Mountain Times. She often lays down color like frosting, entirely with a palette knife, which, though expertly done, can mean that some of the pictures are best viewed from slightly to one side or several steps back.
The spaces depicted in her paintings—a kitchen, an old-fashioned parlor, a sunporch, even a cellar crammed with odds and ends—are both particular and universal. Each environment has a distinct mood, expressed by Fitch’s choice of color palette, season and lighting.
Anyone who has spent time in a country house surrounded by fields and trees can relate to “Morning Tea,” showing a bathrobe-clad woman putting on the teakettle in a chilly kitchen lit by the glare of morning light reflecting off the snowy scene outside the windows. “Donna’s Porch”—a sunporch at noontime expressed in lush reds, yellows and greens, populated with rattan chairs and a dog curled up in a sunny spot and a stand of sun-drenched pines at the edge of the glowing lawn outside—positively radiates late-summer heat.
The focus is always on the rooms and their contents, but nature beckons beyond the windows, in what Fitch calls “paintings within paintings”—echoing the Renaissance device of offering a glimpse of a miniature landscape beyond the window frame. The fun really begins when a bright outdoor scene is reflected back from another window or a framed picture or a mirror on a wall. The contrast between indoors and outdoors can be restful, comforting, gay, or arresting, as in “Dusk,” where the intense cobalt tone of the winter darkness outside presses against the windows of the starkly lit, spartan country kitchen.
What makes these compositions depart sharply from the Renaissance is Fitch’s adaptation of the inflexible grid of linear perspective with its flat-screen foreground and distant vanishing point. “I include in one painting a span of space that cannot be taken in by one static viewpoint,” Fitch explained. The result is the sense that everything is either moving away from or toward us (a perspective pioneered by Degas, Van Gogh, and other French Impressionists). Nevertheless, the viewpoint is a definite height off the floor—“I’m 5 feet 4 inches,” Fitch laughed.
Fitch works from life: she notes “the meagerness of the photograph as a sole source of painting imagery … The human gaze is very different than how a camera sees,” she writes. “When we binocular-visioned humans deeply look, we scan a space, looking up, down and around.”
In “Hollister’s Sewing Machine Collection,” the familiar kitchen now contains three vintage sewing machines on different tables, facing in random directions like rowboats on a pond. Each one—along with each table and chair—occupies its place independently: if the lines of conventional perspective for each were extended to the horizon, they would cross like pickup sticks. The floor appears to sag toward the front and the walls appear to bend to the right and left; on the right sunporch windows open onto a long vista of farmland, bare trees, barns, ending at a distant ridgeline. In the far right corner of the porch a person appears to be consulting a smartphone.
“A simple narrative element sets the painting in motion,” she wrote in the statement. It could be a couch, a view out the window, a bright reflection, a pool of light. “As I make the painting I create paths,” she continued. Fitch makes frequent use of hinged compositions, where the vertical line of a corner, a post, a half-open door, allows the scene to unfurl to both right and left, into other rooms. She also likes to depict a space from opposite corners, often including the same object—a mug of tea, a bucket of joint compound—to provide continuity.
Two canvases from this year, unfinished studies of the “bunkhouse basement” from two different angles, reveal her method. Wedged into a corner behind a couple of manual typewriters, she delineates the placements and multiple perspectives in bold brown lines, switching to black to keep track of her changes, she said. Then she adds patches of color. Two human figures: a woman and a child, occupy the space along with laundry machines, chairs and shelving crammed with stored items. The only finished details are their faces in “Bunkhouse Basement No. 2.”
“This process of reassessing, redrawing, goes on for me throughout the process of making a painting, but the evidence of that search is usually buried under the resolution. I am excited that in my most recent paintings, the bunkhouse basement series, the evidence of the search remains visible and thus the act of reassessing and redrawing is integrated into the image,” she told the Mountain Times.
Less easy to grasp are the tableaus borrowed from Scripture, in which her children and friends reenact scenes for her series “Saints and Sinners.” Her motive is “to explore the changing meaning of these archetypal narratives when the action is transported to a present day interior setting.” Viewing the complete series on her website helps to create the impression of the eternal nature of these themes that underlie everyday life.
A painting might take six months to complete, she explained, but despite that her output is enormous. It can be viewed on her website, dianefitch.com. A native of Vermont, Fitch completed a B.F.A. at the now Maine College of Art in Portland and an M.F.A. at Indiana University in Bloomington. Capping a 30-year career teaching fine arts, most recently at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, she returned home to Calais in 2012, where she continues to paint.
Postcard of the “Interiors” exhibit now on display at the downtown gallery in Rutland.