A Tiny Lady, a Titanic Talent
A Conversation with Carole Feuerman
- Carole Feuerman Interview conducted Wed March 25, 2009 at her studio for Sculpture magazine June 2009
Like a diamond whose spectacular sparkle belies its size, the diminutive five foot tall New York based sculptor, Carole Feuerman, at fifty plus, radiates the kind of energy that one usually associates with a teenager. Though Feuerman has been working and exhibiting at ‘full speed ahead’ for the past four decades--mostly across the country--for the past ten years with the mega growth of international Biennales and art fairs, her international reputation has been growing by leaps and bounds. Feuerman’s most recent double coup – which the media flashed around the world – was her winning first prize at the 2008 Beijing Biennale for her hyper-realistic sculpture The Survival of Serena. The photo making the rounds depicted a young girl, obviously overwhelmed by Serena’s red-blooded realism, kissing the sculpture. At that same time, with a different jury, her Olympic Swimmer was one of ten works of art selected out of hundreds of entries to represent the Beijing Olympics in the permanent collection of the newly proposed Beijing Museum of Modern Art. Seemingly taking their cues from the artist’s foreign successes—among both critics and public alike—her show-stopping sculptures automatically become the most popular photo-op at every venue – galleries, museums and sculpture parks in this country appear to be waking up to this under-discovered jewel in their midst. The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto, Pennsylvania gave Feuerman her first retrospective in 2001. Last year the Amarillo Museum of Art followed suit with a second retrospective. Next year the El Paso Museum of Art is giving Feuerman her third retrospective—and largest to date. Here, following the ‘three strikes and you’re in’ mantra, the museum will exhibit fifty-five of the artist’s plaster, resin, marble and bronze sculptures under the title River of Life. The museum intends to travel the exhibition to Mexico, Spain and China. This coming fall Feuerman is having a one-woman exhibition at Jim Kempner Fine Art in New York City. Still working to beat the band, Feuerman, who has studios in both Florence and New York City, plans to exhibit two monumental sculptures at the Piazza della Signoria in front of the PalazzoVecchio in Florence, Italy. They will be holding court on the very same Piazza as a large copy of Michelangelo’s David. As the first contemporary sculpture to be exhibited on the Piazza and the first sculpture created by a woman, Feuerman will be achieving yet another double coup.
ER: Give us some background on your development as an artist. When did you first realize you wanted to dedicate your life to your art?
CF: As a child growing up in upstate New York and Hollis Hills, Queens, I knew I wanted to pursue art as a career. When I was five, I helped my grandfather design and build our home by spray-painting an outline of each room on the lawn. In fifth grade, my teacher asked me to give weekly drawing lessons to my class. While in high school I sold my first painting to appreciative neighbors who paid me $300. I guess you could say that officially made me a professional. I then went on to study art at Temple University and SVA and got my Bachelor of Arts degree in 1967.
ER: You started out as an illustrator. How did you segue from the commercial sector into the so-called fine art world?
I was always planning on being a fine arts artist—not a commercial illustrator. I wanted to create art that could interact with the viewer on a very personal level. I knew I could paint and draw, that was easy. I was painting and drawing when I was illustrating. Gradually, my illustrations became more three dimensional and larger—some of them were six feet tall. I even began combining two dimensional and three dimensional aspects in my work—like in my Self Portrait (1973), in which I included three dimensional, sculptural legs and platform shoes beneath my painted self portrait, and Gloria, a painting I made for Gloria Steinem in the same year. The art directors that hired me for illustration work saw these large works and suggested I move into the fine art realm, since the pieces I was creating were considered fine art instead of illustration.
ER: You said that you studied drawing, painting, photography, printing making, and art history, but never sculpture. How did you learn to do what you do?
CF I wanted to work in resins, but I didn’t know how. There was a mannequin company down on Bond Street. I went there and I asked them if they would hire me. I said I would work for nothing and that I wanted to learn how to lay-up resin. They said no. I called a few other mannequin companies and it was clear that I wasn’t going to be hired by any of them. I was buying my resin at Canal Plastics in those days, so I went there and asked them how to work with it. They said they would explain how to use the materials if I came to their store at 7AM before the store opened, which I did. I also had an artist friend, a realist sculptor named Ben Bianchi who worked with resins and molds. He posed for Duane Hanson as the “artist.” He gave me lessons. After Bianchi taught me how to cast, I made my first sculptures, the erotic series. Panda, my very first erotic piece was a little bit of my hip, a very tiny fragment with two male fingers on it. I did thirteen erotic sculptures, all realistically painted. In all of these sculptures I used fragments taken from two people. I showed this series in 1978 at my first gallery exhibition in Fort Worth, Texas. It was titled Rated X. When I flew down to the opening the gallery owner told me that Fort Worth was in the Bible belt, so they couldn’t keep the show up. Three years later Malcolm Forbes bought all thirteen of my erotic sculptures at my second solo show at the Hanson Gallery in New York. Somehow he spied them in the back room of the gallery. He also bought my first swimmer, Snorkel.
ER: Your most popular works, your signature style so to speak, are your hyper- realistic sculptures. How did you arrive at this style? Do you find it difficult to work with realism and super realism given that the current contemporary art environment—especially for sculpture—tends to move away from figurative, realistic representation?
CF: Physicality is a huge part of my work. The hyper-realistic style of my art creates the physicality for which my sculptures are known. The realism in my art stems from my desire to portray real emotions and physical states of being—from peaceful serenity to energy, equilibrium to vigour. I make my sculptures about people who are comfortable in their own skin. I promote the idea of total health. The World Health Organization stated in 1970, the decade in which I began making my sculptures, that health embraced a total package of ‘physical, mental, and social well being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. A sound mind in a sound body, in other words. This is one of the defining aspects of my realistic style. Forty years ago, showing healthy, intelligent women was a radical departure in contemporary art. Now it is a widely accepted ideal, yet most contemporary artists don’t explore this topic—at least not in figurative art.
ER: You are best known for your sculptures of women bathers and swimmers and your technique of creating hyper realistic water droplets that cling to their bodies. Your sculpture The Survival of Serena (2007) shows a young girl resting languorously in an inner tube. In Catalina (2006) – for which you won an award from the city of Florence – we see a scantily clad woman emerging from the water. Even Employee Shower (2008), your permanent installation at the Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey, features a young woman taking a shower. How did water become such an important aspect in your work? What does water represent to you?
CF: Water can be very calming, organic, and peaceful, and, as a theme, it goes well with the tone I desire for my work. I play with the idea that ordinary activities—like cleansing or swimming—can put an individual in touch with deeper sentiments. The water droplets help to create a very physical presence in my sculptures. Our bodies are made up mostly of water. It is crucial for life—the earth could not sustain itself without water. Water connects all of us through this universal necessity. It has spiritual qualities. My poured bronze works are also related to the theme of water and flowing liquid. The process I use to make these bronze pieces, like Zeus and Hera, which is also part of the Grounds for Sculpture collection, has been called “painting with fire.” In many ways I am “painting” while creating these magnificent pieces out of liquid metals.
ER: What role does sexuality play in your art—both in the erotic series and also in your other realistic works, such as in your male/female relationship series?
CF: I believe that my figurative sculptures represent an awareness of inner self. I think this is a very sensual thing—not sexual in the traditional sense, but definitely encompassing the aspect of sensuality that is so closely linked to sexuality. This is apparent in my nude female figures, like Employee Shower. Sensuality dresses the woman’s outer form, but there is a deeper, underlying emotional aspect to the work. The fantasy occurs not only in the creation of the art, but also in the viewer’s mind. As viewers look upon the sculpture, they develop their own back story about the figure they see before them. A lot of this stems from the voyeuristic aspects of catching the subject in the middle of a private or sensual moment.
ER: After decades of working in wax, plaster, resin and marble, what made you start working in bronze?
CF: I liked the idea of working with liquid materials, sort of an extension of my interest in the organic qualities of water. I liked the fact that resin is a liquid which turns to a solid when you pour it. Bronze is similar in this aspect. I was searching for another material to use, and the organic aspect of pouring the metal appealed to me. I started working in bronze when I turned fifty and I turned a corner of my life. I had to search for a foundry that would let me actually work with the metals myself. I wanted to melt the metals and pour them above ground and not in a ceramic shop. My first four bronzes – all female goddesses created in 1999—were named for the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire.
ER: Tell me about your bronze technique and pouring molten metal’s above ground.
CF: I create my poured bronze pieces by free-pouring, dripping, and layering bronze and other molten metals into sand molds. This is an incredibly sensory process, and has an exciting and mysterious effect. One thing I love about sand casting is that I maintain control and involvement throughout the entire process of creating a sculpture. During the traditional lost wax process of making bronze sculptures, the artist only creates the maquette used to make a mold. After this, the artist gives the maquette to a foundry, and the foundry finishes the process of making the mold and pouring the metal into the mold, after which the piece is chased and given a patina to produce the final art product. In sand casting, I maintain contact with the sculpture throughout the entire process. I pour the metals. I determine exactly how each unique sculpture will come out. Although pouring materials into a mold is the technique I used in my earliest resin sculptures, the freedom to pour several molten metals of various colors at one time has allowed for gestural possibilities resulting in the layering of surface characteristics.
ER: How much time does it take to make one piece?
CF: Each piece, whether in resin or bronze, is different and evolves at its own rate over time. For instance, a commissioned piece may be completed within three months or take up to two years. However, depending on scale, intricacy, and concept, the progress of some pieces has spanned over a decade.
ER: Are your sculptures created using real models, photo images or strictly from your imagination?
CF: My figure sculptures, both male and female, are never the result of one simple direct life cast. Often, I combine the castings of different models and parts, such as hands and feet, which may require hand-sculpting from imagination. Each part is given special attention as an integral element in the story of the sculpture. The work always starts in my mind’s eye and revolves around a theme. I choose models that are able to pose for those gestures that express the feelings and the message I want to communicate. The emotion and willingness can come across in the casting of the live models. My sculptures are not always directly cast from live models. Sometimes I observe a posing model while I sculpt using clay or plaster. I paint most of my resin pieces using oil paint, although some I leave white.
ER: In the past few years you have been revisiting your earlier hyper realistic resin works from the 80s and recreating them in larger-than-life versions. What brought about this change in scale? Do you think that you were following a trend?
CF: Trend? Oh my god, no! It was all about location. I created my first two monumental sculptures in 2006 for my exhibition at the Paradiso Café, which is just outside the gates of the Venice Biennale. With so many artists, so many pavilions vying for attention, I wanted to catch the eye of the people attending the Biennale. I knew that a figure presented at an unfamiliar proportion would invite a moment of disbelief and force the viewer to step outside the comfortable boundaries of reality. It was a success. Grande Catalina and The Survival of Serena became one of the Biennale’s most popular Photo-ops. People actually lined up to have their picture taken with them.
ER: Your retrospective last year at the Amarillo Museum of Art – I might add beautifully curated by its director Graziella Marchicelli – was quite an eye-opener.
Along with your traditionally optimistic, fun-loving swimmers, bathers, ballet dancers, and your classical bronze sculptures, you had a number of deep and dark psychological works. This was quite a surprise. Are these works autobiographical?
CF: The “New Works” are fourteen sculptures from 2006 inspired by my memories of my life and express my views about the world as I see it. They speak about cover-ups, not being able to be heard, woman’s rights, children’s rights, sexuality, woman’s growth, and even being forced to eat and to do things one does not want to do. Her Party draws from bits of my childhood and my adult life. When I was young, I was never allowed in our living room except when we had company. My mother covered all the upholstered furniture in plastic and we were never allowed to sit on it. When we were grown and my mother moved away, my brother and I disposed of the furniture and realized the silk had disintegrated beneath the plastic and we children had not gotten to sit on it. I brought one of the silk benches to my studio. At this point, having matured and survived breast cancer, I decided to take life as a blessing. I wanted to celebrate my good fortune, so I sat down on this bench with plastic covering, and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t sit on the fabric. Her Party makes a statement about toasting to life, and the simple things that we all take for granted. It’s about being in the moment and enjoying all that you have.
ER: What do you see on your horizon?
CF: I’d love to get more pieces in public locations, but it is really hard to get started in public art in this country. It has been easier for me in Italy. Next year I am going show two new works, my largest to date, in the Piazza Signoria in Florence, where Michelangelo’s David is located. I am using another type of urethane that is good for outdoors. One sculpture will be a fragmented, twelve-foot-tall young girl blowing bubbles. In August of 2010, River of Life, my third retrospective to date, will open at the El Paso Museum of Art. Here I plan on taking my water theme to another level with projections of water, fire, air, and earth, over and around my sculptures. I love the idea of immersing the viewer in a total theatrical experience. I think that that is the direction that I am heading towards—creating whole new worlds.