Personal effects: At their new joint show, Megan Read and Michael Fitts make space for meaning

"Faith" by Megan Reed, 2019, oil on linen “Faith” by Megan Reed, 2019, oil on linen

Our voices bounce back at us as we speak. I’m one street over from the Downtown Mall in Megan Read’s studio, and it, like her paintings, has an uncluttered spaciousness about it.

Older finished works line part of a wall, and paintings in progress are set up at various heights on another. But the rest of the space lies mostly bare. Shiny wooden floors gleam. Pristine brick walls rise. A kitchenette area in the far corner poses as if it were part of a brand-new model home where no one has or might ever dare to cook, eat, or sip.

As I lower the microphone level on my handheld recorder to a safer setting, it occurs to me that this is the most immaculate art studio I’ve ever seen in my life.

Read explains that she hasn’t been working here all that long, hence the emptiness. Still, her studio could be held up as exemplary for many, an endgame that’s defined the early part of 2019: The Year to Seriously Clean House. The popularity of Marie Kondo has spurred a zeitgeist for living a clutter-free life shared only with the bare essentials (or at least those that “spark joy,” as Kondo says), and reassessing the importance of the objects we bring into our homes.

For Read, a tidy space is imperative. She says that she gets overwhelmed easily and feels stressed when engaging with a heavy sensory load. When I ask what the inside of her house looks like, she recounts the large lot of stuff she has, but notes that it stays contained, with curios like bird bones and nests stored in their proper places alongside more functional belongings like glassware.

Her works reflect this intrinsic need for unobstructed surroundings, and are partially responsible for her return to creating after multiple, years-long periods away from making art. After nearly a decade of suffering from depression and avoiding most human contact, Read used painting as a way to cycle through her own mental difficulties and to connect with others, both in showing her work and finding like-minded artists online. The act of painting continues to provide solace.

“A lot of the things I’ve been painting are about making quiet spaces for me,” she says. “And that’s also part of the reason I started drawing in the first place—and then painting again. It’s a break from all of the chaos. It’s a time where I don’t feel like I’m supposed to do anything else. There isn’t stuff coming at me and I don’t worry that I’m not doing the right thing, which for someone who is anxious, is a nice feeling.”

That feeling of detached simplicity is captured within paintings that are equally undisturbed by any mess. But as opposed to her bright studio, many of her pieces are rooted in a chiaroscuro treatment where figures appear coolly lit, emerging from a depth of field concealed in darkness, a heavily shadowed world without end.

Megan Read in her studio, Sanjay Suchak

Read’s new works for the upcoming show “OBJECTify,” opening at Second Street Gallery on Friday, April 5, with veteran local artist Michael Fitts, further explores her penchant for female subjects with obscured faces who occupy sparse environments—almost always with a few carefully chosen possessions.

As in earlier works like “Becoming,” which featured a woman blindfolded by an Adidas headband, and “Furling,” which depicted a female figure holding up a pair of Nike sneakers by their laces, these new paintings commingle touches reminiscent of Old World, romantic nudes crossed with slices of hyperrealist visions. The overall effect may be, at times, disarmingly photographic, but Read contends that achieving photorealism isn’t her concern.

Read constructs images in Photoshop, which then function as rough working models for her paintings. But she insists there are major differences between the staging that she creates in software and the finished pieces.

“It’s funny, there are people who will see my stuff and be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so realistic!’ But I pick details to put in. I will put in a bunch of actual hairs on the head and more wrinkles on the hands and feet. Otherwise, I don’t really care,” she says.

Driven by an urge to recreate what she sees in her mind, she’s less concerned with any message that her paintings might contain, and motivated by a subconscious pull toward perfecting the natural grace of the figure’s position. While her newer works’ main female subject co-stars with a finch, and in one case, a peacock, there are also a few select possessions: a tapestry, an iPhone, and a pair of surprisingly sunny yellow shoes that Read says she has in five colors, noting that she owns all the footwear in her paintings.

Shoes have become an ongoing trope that Read consciously incorporates. The aforementioned Nikes appear in multiple works. She admits that purchase was aspirational, since it took her 10 years to start wearing them after first bringing them home, harboring a wish to be the kind of person who would wear the suede Sprint Sister model.

“Actually, when I started painting them, I got to the point in my life where I stopped worrying about what people think and decided that I can wear bright blue sneakers,” she says. “My feet are the only place where I wear bright colors. They just seem to be representative of the way you want to present yourself. I think the shoes people wear say a lot.”

So while she’s adamant that she doesn’t choose the objects in her paintings for any symbolic reason, there may be something to what she says about the possessions already conveying specific messages. It makes sense. As a society, we like our things to say something about who we are.

But on the whole, Read tries not to ruminate too much on the items that find their way into her works. She lets her energies guide the process.

“Usually by the end, I start having thoughts about why I chose to put things there in the first place. And some of the choices start to make more sense. I think that there are themes I see repeating themselves that I am certainly not sitting down and planning out, but they just keep happening.”

The elements that recur in her paintings include hidden female faces, articles of women’s clothing, birds, and technology. If there is an overarching theme, it is a conflict between who we are, who we want to be, and what we wish for ourselves. Read’s works envision an inner strength, resilience, and the potential of freedom, but also reveal weakness in the face of all that life demands. They demonstrate a comfort with our own bodies, but also uncover the threat of doubt and, perhaps, a weakness to hold on to those mere things—favorite shoes, the ubiquitous cellphone—that have also come to define us.

Michael Fitts in his studio. Photo: Sanjay Suchak

Im really not sure how Michael Fitts can work like this.

His counterpart in the “OBJECTify” exhibition could probably park an SUV in her studio, but he paints in much closer quarters.

Fitts is partly to blame for his condition. An ever-growing collection of what is usually dismissed as junk—toy parts, game pieces, food wrappers, vintage oil cans, and 40-year-old drug store staples—monopolizes the room. These are the items that feature in his work. He crouches under a lamp, mere inches from the floor, hunched in a kneeling position that resembles religious prostration. His setup looks extremely uncomfortable. By nightfall, the studio is mostly dark, barring the penetrating spotlight focus of the work bulb, and increasingly restrictive thanks to the tenuous heaps of his amassed stuff.

The artifacts from his paintings peek out of the piles. They recall moments of a 1970s upbringing among dad’s hardware detritus, mom’s dress patterns, and after-school candy store splurges. You might think he would feel overwhelmed by the amount of accumulated clutter in his studio, and he admits that it’s started to encroach on the work area he’s carved out in the center of the room. Yet for all of the chaos, he’s got his own system of organization and he’s determined to hold on to the bulk of his stuff.

“Some of it I’ve let go. But over the years, I’ve started keeping it. I did a painting of a popcorn box once when I was getting started, and after I finished it, I threw the box away. Then I sold that painting and I wanted to do it again. So after that I just started keeping everything—unless it’s something like a melting chocolate bar that I can just buy again. I have everything that I’ve painted.”

Michael Fitts’ “McCall’s 4183,” 2019, oil on copper

His reasons for collecting what others might toss stems from a sincere hope that he will capture it later in his art. The works Fitts has planned for the Second Street show continue his fascination with recreating singular items on metal “canvases,” in this case copper—perhaps a link to his former life as a sign painter. Like Read, he tries not to overthink the process of what possessions he chooses to paint or their potential meaning.

His works are simple: one painting, one object. But they have effectively stirred emotional responses for years. They are depictions of things, yes, recognizable and perhaps mundane, but by no means devoid of deep emotive qualities. Fitts’ art nails down what might otherwise blow into the trees. He holds these disposable items up as emblems of a time when his future was untethered by responsibility, and his universe was packaged in the vibrant comfort of brands you could trust. He is a master of reproducing mid-to-late-20th-century artifacts with the far-reaching power of recalling our secret remembrances and cherished dreams of youth.

As Americans, that longing to own stuff —and the sentiments those things elicit—reveals a commercialism that tends to get tied to trademarks. When I mention that both he and his fellow “OBJECTify” artist often display brand names in their art, Fitts says he strove to paint more generic objects in the past. But he stopped thinking about the potential impact of trademarked corporate names and logos when he opted to follow a Pop Art aesthetic. It frees him to reframe whatever he fancies as a work of art without ascribing any secondary meaning. “I like to try to strip away as much narrative as I possibly can,” he says.

He’s also keenly aware that he’s not the first to appropriate consumer goods and that duplicating the artful packaging that covers them follows a Warhol-like tradition, perhaps best described by a friend calling him a “Pop Realist.”

Whereas Read’s hyperrealism and product placement are byproducts of a therapeutic painting process for calming her mind, Fitts is motivated by the act of copying his subject with machine-like accuracy—and without affecting the object of his interest by injecting his own interpretation of it. That goal is the consequence of a long art career that was never built upon his imagination. Years ago, he painted in an abstract style for a period, but for him, the less concrete compositions took considerably more effort.

“Abstract art is so much harder, because you’re trying to let something flow out of you, whereas I’m just painting a Q-Tip box. You don’t really need an artistic mind. The artistic mind part is concept.”

With paintings like “Skate,” “Box of Chocolates,” and “Potato Chips,” it’s nearly impossible to believe that Fitts doesn’t find the whole thing a bit funny. But the VCU graphic design school grad swears that he is completely genuine about what he does and expects to be taken seriously. And he definitely should be, as even if some of it is a bit of a laugh, Fitts’ works’ comic potency never belies ingenious artistic concepts and an exceptional capability for accuracy.

“I did a painting a couple of years ago of a Heinz ketchup packet that had been stomped on, with the ketchup splattered. People thought it was hilarious. And it was, but I don’t even know why. Other times, I’ve had people ask, ‘What made you think that you could do a Pond’s Cold Cream as a painting?’ And again, I don’t know. That’s the mystery. The rest of it is just execution,” he says.

Fitts’ “Skate,” 2019, oil on copper

I’m not that creative,” Read says shrugging. It’s an odd self-assessment, but a cutting and introspective viewpoint she shares with how Fitts sees himself. It’s also another reason that pairing the two for the Second Street show makes sense beyond the skillful photographic accuracy they produce with their brushes.

Strangely, “OBJECTify” is the culmination of many real-life narrative threads that came to light when Read first hung her piece “Resistance/Resilience,” a painting of a nude woman dropping hay for a sheep.

“My wife and I used to walk every morning to get coffee at Mudhouse,” Fitts recalls. “We walked in there and saw Megan’s painting and I was like, ‘What the hell is this?!’ I hadn’t ever seen anyone in Charlottesville doing anything like she was doing. So new, unusual, and well-executed. I thought it could easily be at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”

He reached out to her, and the two met. She recalls being ecstatic that she was going to be having a conversation with someone she considered a real artist. As it turned out, when Read was first learning to paint at 16—in the same building that houses her new studio—she saw Fitts’ art at Mudhouse and had her own epiphany: “Holy shit—that’s what I want to do!” she recalls thinking. “I feel like that’s exactly what should be made. I want to make exactly what he’s making.”

Clearly, Read’s artistic journey veered from Fitts’, but they are both capable of faultless execution and an uncanny ability to render stunning detail with brushstrokes.

Fitts recalls that Read was concerned about filling the walls for a show she was planning, and he offered to “take up some of the space.” Right around the same time, Second Street’s executive director and chief curator Kristen Chiacchia approached the artists about producing a joint exhibition at the nonprofit gallery. It was a serendipitous moment.

“It’s Second Street’s mission to bring the best contemporary art to central Virginia—and in this case, I didn’t have to search far,” says Chiacchia. “Charlottesville has two local artists working in the New Precisionist style of painting equal to what’s currently being shown in top galleries in New York.”

“Flowers Without Vessel,” by Megan Read, 2018, oil on linen.

And how do the artists expect their new works to be received? Undoubtedly, people will gasp at the trompe l’oeil realness that Read and Fitts serve. Yet they each hope viewers will freely give their paintings the meanings that they’ve left for them to convey on their behalf.

Read says she imagines that because of her paintings’ intentional emptiness, what does remain are reliable targets for accepting the emotional projection of any invested viewer. She cites a touching moment when a woman justified an urgent exit by noting that her male companion began welling up at “Resistance/Resilience.”

“I definitely don’t want to make people cry, but it makes me really happy that somebody had a moment,” Read says. “That’s really what I want: people to have a moment that’s meaningful for them.”

In Fitts’ estimation, his paintings’ lack of narrative leaves a wide berth for others to call back to their own childhood memories and hit a soft spot. He says that those endless opportunities for what each object might recall for viewers is his raison d’être.

Now his only concern is that his part of the show holds up to Read’s.

“I told Megan that I hope I can keep from embarrassing myself when I look at what she’s doing.” He considers how their work diverges: “Hers definitely has a dark, psychologically tortured feel,” Fitts says, pausing to chuckle, “whereas mine is like…oil can.”

But the things that capture our attention resonate in ways unimagined. Read and Fitts will likely be surprised when they discover the meanings viewers bestow on their latest paintings, strangers stepping closer to scrutinize their artistry, mentally taking possession of things that, once seen, immediately belong to all of us.