Crystal Fischetti, one of Debut Contemporary’s rising stars, talks to Nancy Alsop about love, light, understanding – and becoming the best contemporary artist in the world
She doesn’t know it, but Tracey Emin has played a pivotal role in the life of artist, Crystal Fischetti. Aside from the inspiration that her work has supplied (‘it’s so strong that sometimes I almost feel I have to resist it’), she has popped up periodically along Fischetti’s trajectory, having been a near studio neighbour for some years in Shoreditch. ‘She said something so illuminating to me once, that it sort of changed my perspective on everything. After I finished art school, I had it in my head that it was pretty much a requirement to do an MA, so I felt really down when I wasn’t getting into the Royal Academy. She said to me: ‘But are you sure that The Royal Academy is right for you?’’
And with that simple, nudging guidance a possibility dawned: that Fischetti, having been making artwork non-stop for years, was already an artist, and could feel vindicated in labelling herself as such. ‘I had never thought of it like that. She gave good and tender advice, which really moved me. I decided there and then: ‘That’s it, I’m an artist now.’ And I had my first solo show the year I graduated. It was in glamorous Brixton! I showed my Emotion and Sentiment series, all of my big work – I really wanted to come out with a bang.’
We meet at Fischetti’s South Bermondsey studio as she is busy prepping work for a two-woman show at Notting Hill’s Debut Contemporary with fellow Debut artist, Michelle Hold. As a former dancer (her narrative almost went another way, having been accepted into the Royal Ballet school, before her parents got cold feet about the idea), there is a grace inherent within everything she does; every literal move is a glide, and every career step has been executed with a dancer’s decorum.
Yet, as with all the best dance artists, there is far more to Fischetti than refined grace, and indeed there is far more to her multi-media artistic oeuvre than simply beauty. The pervading sense is that she inhabits her work; simply that it is her and she is it. When she talks about herself – her self-confessed curious mélange of arrogance, confidence and vulnerability, and the shades of light and dark that run through her life – she could just as easily be talking about her work. And her undeniable poise, as she glides easily across her studio, is both that of a dancer, but also of someone who is receptive, someone who knows that she should willingly submit to external influence as part of her arc. She talks of light as the defining element in her work and in her life – and this light is more often that not imparted to her through her receptiveness to the teachings of others.
Take, for example, her upcoming show at Debut Contemporary. Having been brought into the fold and taken under the nurturing wing of the gallery’s Samir and Zoe Ceric, she was invited to attend their academy, which teaches fledgling artists about the practicalities of operating the in art world; as ever, she allowed herself to enthusiastically submit to such external instruction – and at no time has that been more evident than now. For Fischetti’s latest light-guiding tutor through life is, she says, the writer Paolo Coehlo.
‘It’s a two-woman show, featuring myself and another artist called Michelle Hold. We’ve been really guided by Coelho, and the show is inspired by one of his books called The Warrior of Light. It’s more like a manual – every single page is about how to be a better warrior, and essentially a better person. It is all about shining your light – we all make mistakes, it’s fine, get over it. Not everyone is perfect, but the philosophy is to strive for the best, always, which is philosophy close to my heart. So, we’re going to have the show and explode light, colour and fabulous energy into Notting Hill.’
It makes a certain sense that Fischetti attended a Notting Hill school so progressive (‘hippy’ in her parlance) that its central tenets were based around yoga and Ayurveda; having been weaned on such openness to the alternative, she will forever be a willing recipient of new ideas. As such, Coelho’s manual is as instructive and taken-to-heart as it is inspiring.
‘Mohammed Ali said: ‘I am the greatest,’’ she tells me. ‘And he didn’t really believe what he said until he kept repeating it and finally he believed it. It became ingrained in him and he is a great example of a warrior of light. So it’s not about being a warrior causing wars or in battle – although sometimes there might be a battle there. One of the lines is: ‘When evil pursues the warrior, he finally lets him into his tent.’ I’ve just got chills repeating that. You’re not surrendering, but you’re giving in to negative energy that you want to shine that light on. You accept it, you say: ‘Come into my world and let’s come to an agreement.’’
In keeping with this, the almost finished canvases that dot her studio range from colour-tearing-through-the-canvas confidence to the quieter, more reflective palettes, which may manifest themselves in blues, greens and serene hues. Meanwhile in the corner, sits a vivid, dripping, bleeding, overflowing heart, titled Open Wound. ‘I think that creatives have a knack of confronting our fear head on, and it can be really heartbreaking and it can be really tough. You’re really showing your vulnerability. I am absolutely in love with love. I am a hopeless romantic. And I’ve had my heart broken – I’ve broken hearts too – but that painting is about opening your heart and exposing yourself, which means that you can get cut. It’s painful sometimes, but I can’t hide from who I am.’
Other tutorials through her trajectory have been conducted in absentia and sometimes from beyond the grave. ‘I have teachers that are dead and in books. Robert Motherwell is my absolute hero and Helen Frankenthaler, who he was married to, was also an amazing abstract artist. Two of my heroes were married – and for me, that is just so hopelessly romantic. They’ve passed away but I feel like I carry them around with me. And I feel like I have their words in my head because of copious amounts of reading and going to galleries and looking. Nature teaches me, experience teaches me, people I’ve just met teach me, music… I just love learning and finding new things out.’
But one of the most illuminating lights in Fischetti’s arrival at a guiding set of questions remains Immanule Kant. ‘Kant really influenced me with regard to the aesthetic. One of the exercises that really stuck with me was the cat. We were asked, ‘what is this?’ ‘Oh it’s a cat.’ But what else is it? ‘It’s a black cat.’ ‘Ok, but removing those labels, what are you left with?’ ‘It’s an animal.’ ‘How do you know it’s an animal? This chair could be an animal, but for some reason we’ve programmed our minds into thinking: ‘That’s a chair, that’s a cat, that’s a window.’ So art and language are very connected. Philosophy and abstraction are very tied. Abstraction is about taking away and removing what we think we know about the world. Once you remove those codes of language and those markers, it really opens your mind. You begin to realise that anything is possible and nothing is impossible.’
And in that spirit of that all-conquering bravery and possibility, she looks at me and says, with huge gravitas: ‘I have a real urgency in life – I am very impatient. I love living and I have seen people pass away and I don’t know if I have made my best work yet. I want to be the greatest contemporary artist of our age. That’s how much I want it. Full force.’ And for that, Tracey Emin: we thank you.