Ambiguous Narrative in a Contemporary Figurative Context

by Beauchamp Art

Investigating Eric Fischl’s ‘Bad Boy’ and its relevance to the development of my personal practise

The use of ambiguous narrative deliberately open to multiple interpretations in order to communicate a concept to a viewer is an area of interest to me, as it allows the artist to connect with their audience and stimulate thoughts on a subject, idiosyncratically expand upon them. One such artist who uses this theme is Eric Fischl, who frequently employs figures to create an uncertain dialogue between the viewer and his work.

[Fig. 1] Eric Fischl – Bad Boy, 1981

Bad Boy features a nude woman trimming her nails on a bed whilst exposing herself to a young boy, whose hand slips into a purse in the foreground, adjacent to a bowl of fruit; light filtering through partially closed blinds. Instinctively one looks for explanation through narrative, the manipulation therein creates intrigue. Fischl uses “gestures of the body as a way of expressing two kinds of realities; one is the motor response to an action, and the other is a psychological response that torques the body.”

The subtleties of body language are paramount when beginning to interpret the image; the indefiniteness of the scene becomes apparent. For example, although the nude figure is laid bare, she appears oblivious or unaffected by the child’s presence. The boy too seems unmoved by her nudity, only acknowledging her so that he might obscure his pick pocketing. The handbag itself could be a allegorical vulva which he is penetrating (whilst wearing a yellow shirt and twisting, so that he takes on some of the properties of the neighbouring bananas, thereby adopting some of their phallic connotations); this would be supportive of the idea of him being on the edge of adulthood, ascertaining maturity. In this painting, as in others, Fischl has chosen to obscure the front of the foremost figure, as “any figure from the back immediately creates a sense of mystery”. However, he is unstimulated by the sexual openness of the figure, possibly implying naïveté or innocence.

This theme runs through a number of his pieces, such as Sleepwalker, where a young male figure stands masturbating in a small pool somewhere in suburbia. However, Fischl rarely is specific in the message of a piece, especially when confronting sex. I find this provocative indirect issue management thought-inspiring.

Moreover, as a piece progresses the intention behind it can shift greatly. Regarding Bad Boy, Fischl “started out just wanting to paint a bowl of fruit”, then included further figurative elements, multiple repositions, forming the now recognisable piece. He “had no way of predicting what would happen”. As the work was being painted, the argument grew and metamorphosised with the new elements. With that, the ‘story’ of how it was created became a crucial part in the development of narrative within the painting. By allowing one to work spontaneously, not based on a concrete image; ideas can expand serendipitously into something grander than originally intended. Thus, meaning does not only grow after the piece is finalised through interpretation and social context, but also through the act of creating.

“[Fischl] often made paintings thinking [he] was doing one thing, and when it was finished it was another thing entirely.”

Being able to learn from the progress of a piece how to resolve it is integral to Fischl’s and my practise, if not Fine Art as a whole. If one is totally constrained by the original concept, not allowing for revisions and modifications, then the final outcome may seem too ‘rigid’ or posed; in both the literal sense of bodies looking artificially positioned or over-composed, and more importantly hindering the dynamism of a scene. Though using the process of creation as part of deliberately creating obscurity does come with its own problems: “You want the process to be part of the creative output all the time”

If one’s intention is create ambiguity, then one must be willing to adapt. Fischl states “[he wants] ambiguity all the time”, so this is clearly an important aspect to consider. Rather than saying there is no clear intended single narrative, more that he uses vagueness to address numerous premises, for the viewer to infer. Being selective in what to address makes or breaks a piece. Arguably; an ambiguous narrative is both a theme in itself, as well as a technique for exploring issues.

As narrative is key not only in Fischl’s painting, and an area of interest to me, but also a substantial part of literary works, then what Michael Frayn (1995) had to say on the subject of the difficulties of limitation in writing is relevant:

“Writing a novel, as any novelist will tell you, is hard. Writing a short story, as any short story writer will be eager to add, is harder still. The shorter the form the harder it gets. Poems are hell. Haiku are hell concentrated into seventeen syllables. Until finally you get down to the shortest literary form of all, which is the title of whatever it is you’re writing.”

As I use text to convey meaning alongside figurative and other abstract elements in works, my concern is not with typography, rather words in a bookish sense, describing scenarios, moments and objects to strengthen the narrative of a piece; incorporating the visual properties of letter formations and mark making that is evident in the act of writing, highlighting the parallels with drawing. Both have advantages and disadvantages. For example, the use of imagery in text (as in poetry) to create a vignette of something more abstract or conceptual; could be more effective way of representing a theme than an image, or other figurative element. In such situations allegory may be useful. “Allegory is a story told in symbolic form, rather than in a situational narrative.”

Though as a visual artist, I do have a predisposition towards image-making over writing. Nevertheless, in Fischl’s very early works, such as Transform, when his technical execution of figures was less developed, he juxtaposed text and image to establish greater depth to his work. In his words: “I figured that if I could create an image that looked somewhat like what I was trying to draw, then I could contextualize it with words, it would give it more of a three-dimensional spin.”

When constructing narrative, parallels can be found with writing, as “a story, like a sentence, seems to have a structure; we usually know whether one or the other is complete on the basis of our previous experience”, the same is true with art. This common language of metaphors, lyricism, imagery and so forth, in art and literature, their collusion seem natural resolution for an artist. If art is boundless, then why refrain from the use of words as art? This symbiosis is potentially a rich source of ideas, enabling the execution of themes through a stimulating atmosphere of images, both draw and otherwise represented by language, to create ambiguous narrative.


[Fig. 2] David Hockney – We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961

Much as in David Hockney’s We Two Boys Together Clinging; the text surrounds the two almost childlike and deliberately naive ‘blobs’ with interconnecting lines that represent two bodies holding one another. The interdependency between image and text is essential for the communication of meaning in the piece. However, there are examples where an artist deliberately undermines their own work by the inclusion of text. Famously in René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, he places the phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) below the image declaring the object false; satirising and highlighting issues of the artificial representation of reality in painting. Exploring humour in art also interests me.

The manipulation of environment is intriguing to consider. In a number of artists’ works, a disharmony of elements can be extraordinarily effective at drawing attention to the relationship between contrasting arguments or subjects.

“Art isn’t simply the weight of all the objects that have ever been made it’s also the weight of the context of the art […] It’s about an eternal dialogue that manifests itself as art.”

Context, and how a piece manifests itself through its environment and how this can affect narrative, complimenting or undermining the piece in itself. For example, if Bad Boy were to be displayed along side a number of Fischl’s other works involving nudes, or similar Contemporary Figuratism, then the contrast between the exposed female figure and the clothed male child would be less ‘shocking’, than if it were to be shown with Renaissance figure paintings, or in a magazine alongside pornographic images. Alluding to a tantalizing theme in order to explore a otherwise difficult subject is a terrific benefit to using ambivalence.

In conclusion, the real focus is how the audience relates to themselves to the elements of a piece, and thus how the artist connects with a viewer. By intentionally using ambiguity and narrative, one has to establish a personal response informed by social pragmatics, contents and context. As Steve Martin puts it (when commenting on Fischl’s Barbeque), narrative allows one to “imply meaning that’s greater than the explicit message of the work itself,” which is why I find it an invaluable resource when creating art.

Word Count: 1161



  • Danto, A.C. and Enright, R. (2000) Eric Fischl 1970-2000. New York: Monacelli.
  • Martin, Wallace, (1986) Recent theories of narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Works mentioned

  • David Hockney, We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961. Oil on board
  • Eric Fischl – Barbeque, 1982, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 100 inches (165 x 254 cm)
  • Eric Fischl – Bad Boy, 1981, Oil on Canvas, 66 x 96 inches (168 x 244 cm.)
  • Eric Fischl – Sleepwalker, 1979, Oil on Canvas, 69 x 105 inches, (175 x 267 cm.)
  • Eric Fischl – Transform, 1977, Ink and Oil on Oiled paper, 32 x 66 inches (81 x 168 cm)
  • René Magritte, The Treachery of Images ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’), 1928–29, Oil on canvas, (25 in × 37 in), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California

Word Count:

With Quotes: 1515

Quotes and titles: 354

Without Quotes: 1161