by Carly Proulx

On Saturday, March 26th MVCA’s new director, Mary Ellen McGillan introduced the work of John Fitzsimmons, a Syracuse-based artist who has been painting and showing his work worldwide for over twenty years. The show consisted of 12 figurative oil paintings and 9 etchings, a body of work that filled the room with bright light and dark shadows, a range of restless tones, and a variety of colors from vibrant yellow-greens to marigold, from deep reds to flesh tones.

Growing up in Upstate New York, John Fitzsimmons developed a fondness for “the hard, low winter light and heavy massed forms over which light has to fight its way around.” This affection becomes evident when one stands in the gallery with his paintings. Fitzsimmons’s technique of incising and cross-hatching to model forms results in quite the iconic effect. Modifying edges and adding detail as he goes, Fitzsimmons leaves behind a body of work that is cohesive on both a technical and aesthetic level, yet with each painting in demand of its own reverence. “When I’m working on a painting, so much of the time spent involves reduction, simplifying form and color until the painting starts to feel right. Sometimes these paintings take a very long time, sometimes months.”

The canvases are life-size compositions where we see Fitzsimmons’ interest fluctuate between painting the individual figure and groups of figures. One eye-catching panoramic view is a painting of multiple figures of the same woman, all loosely wrapped in red drapery standing barefoot in the grass. Equally striking is the tonal antithesis where two standing figures of the same model, cloaked in red, cast a warm light amid the dark. The most peaceful painting, a nude horizontal of a blonde woman lying on her side hangs on the back wall. Peaceful perhaps, but still tension hides behind her eyelids as if to convey that even in sleep this woman’s work wasn’t nearly done. Another woman stands outside next to a tree, their shadows talking among themselves. The woman’s gaze is sloping downward, the window of her eye’s expression closed. Conversely, the viewer is stopped in their tracks after meeting two green eyes peering out from a red cloak. A dark-haired woman, nestled within a gray background in the painting titled “Then and Never” is most captivating, but what’s behind this woman’s gaze remains a mystery.

Ambiguity is a big part of the theme. The excavation of both the action of the artist when creating the work, and the onlooker’s search for meaning is perhaps one and the same journey. “When I am painting, I am digging, looking for a kernel, a seed, an essence that is there; I just need to find it.” What’s left after the digging is done isn’t any one thing. It is left open for interpretation.

Fitzsimmons offers us a different perspective with his etchings. Inky and unlit these prints are seductive in a different way, the mood rendered being more somber. Fitzsimmons’ emotional state when creating his work might be subconscious, a way of transcending this world’s over-analytical plight, but fortunately for the viewer, the end result isn’t quite as subtle. He informs that his art is “unspeakable,” or rather that these images are more about “what’s not being said.”

What little description Fitzsimmons describes to his work is most accurately portrayed in the two side-by-side vertical paintings of a buxom red-haired woman. He says many of his works are about a “conflicted dual nature, arguments with himself, right brain vs left brain, ideals vs pragmatism.” On the right, she appears lost in thought and her hand is on her heart. Is she about to surrender? And on the left her gaze is forward, her footing firm. Is she empowered?

This show pokes and prods at the structures of our emotional life, reminding us what it is to be here, to feel things we don’t always have a name for or a personal connection to; to scratch, sometimes uncomfortably so beyond the surface to reveal that something unknown, that great big mystery that links us to one another, and to keep making that discovery. See this work and let yourself feel whatever it is you will feel, unspeakable or not.

John Fitzsimmons’ “Current Circumstances” is in the 401 Gallery. You can visit the exhibit during regular hours through May 28, 2022: Thursday – Saturday, 12-4, or call 315-823-0808 for an appointment. For more information visit mohawkvalleyarts.org.