Artist Beverly Fishman Takes on Big Pharma

A survey of the artist’s paintings and sculptures at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta skewers drug companies’ marketing tactics in the midst of the US opioid crisis

As US federal criminal charges are filed against Rochester Drug Cooperative – the first such case involving a drug distributor and its executives – and the Sackler family come under intense scrutiny for their role in the country’s opioid crisis, ‘Future Perfect’, Beverly Fishman’s solo show at Kavi Gupta, rings with the clarity of those indictments. Spanning the artist’s work from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, the show harnesses the power of marketing – the very same power which the Sacklers have been accused of abusing – to critique the insidious appeal of modern pills.

‘Beverly Fishman: Future Perfect’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago

‘Beverly Fishman: Future Perfect’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago

At the recent 2019 Met Gala, a pill was spotted dangling off the arm of Natasha Lyonne: a purse in the shape of a clear capsule, stuffed with cigarettes (literal poison), on a night ostensibly dedicated to camp. With even more artful flair, Fishman elevates and elucidates the unmistakable iconography of our medicine cabinets. At Kavi Gupta, two constellations of cast resin capture panacea like pinned insects: Envy #1 – 112 (1999) is comprised of a dizzying array of shapes in the shades of its titular emotion, ranging from British Racing Green to a bar of Irish Spring soap. Together with its compatriot, Bluer Than Blue #1 – 70 (2000), the pieces reclaim the simple pleasures of colour and shape from the marketers whose hard work pushed the likes of Prozac and Viagra during the tail end of the 20th century.

More whimsical cast resin works from 2009 and 2010 link the branding of pharmaceutical companies with the logos on pressed ecstasy pills. Laced with phosphorescent paint, these are all untitled, giving them the conspicuous anonymity of drug dealers and dance-floor sybarites. Beside the cast-resin faces of Bart Simpson and Barack Obama, the Valium ‘V’ looks almost too at home. This is pill power of a subversive, more selfish kind, and the knowledge that its damage pales in comparison to technically legal painkillers makes clear another insidious aspect of privatized healthcare: you’ve got to sell a lot of orange bottles if you want to save lives, because research and development are expensive. 

Beverly Fishman, Barcode Helix, 2010, enamel on polished stainless steel, 189.2 × 213.4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago

Fishman’s latest works on display are visual patterns – graphical representations of chemical structures, mixed with EKGs, double helices and other elements of biological research – that invoke new medical technologies that both digitize and monetize our bodily functions. Alternating bars of various colour and girth abut ragged lines like a hospital heart monitor or a stock market line graphic, while helices are fleshed out into Seahawks neon butterflies and ovals of black line are compressed and layered until they resemble a Spirograph gone wild. Their screen-printed enamel and polished steel have a vicious gleam. The showstoppers Dividose B.M.D. (2012) and Barcode Helix (2010) are an orderly melange of molecular structures, medical assays and barcodes shot through with that shimmering, antiseptic steel, highlighter yellow and rainbow bars like a television test screen. Powder-coated glass and industrial alloys give Fishman’s metal paintings a sculptural command of space, even as they lay flat on the wall. 

With the best intentions, bench scientists work in the hopes of curing symptoms of disease or their underlying causes; pharmaceutical marketing teams, meanwhile, employ the language of art and candy to make sure we swallow as much medicine as we can. These are the nasty side effects of a human right hijacked by capitalism; here, Fishman blows up the fine print for us.

Beverly Fishman: Future Perfect runs at Kavi Gupta, Chicago, USA, until 22 June 2019.

Main image: Beverly Fishman, Dividose B.M.D., 2012, enamel on polished stainless steel, 154.9 × 426.7 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago

B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, art/book critic and essayist based in Chicago.

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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