Survival of Serena and Immigration

In the late seventies and early eighties, Carole and her family lived in a house in Key West in Florida.  She would see Cuban asylum seekers floating to shore on rafts they had strapped together out of inner tubes and driftwood.  She was greatly affected.

Since 1966, seven years after the Cuban revolution put Fidel Castro in power and in the context of the Cold War, the US had viewed Cubans as political refugees eligible for US citizenship if they could just make it to the country. However, because of travel restrictions and limited resources, those desperate to leave the country scavenged raft materials and inner tubes to become balseros, attempting to float across the Caribbean waters to the Keys.

When balseros made it to Florida they were destroyed by the journey: dehydrated, sun-sick, hypothermic, starving.  However, they also become an integral part of the Florida and US community: in total more than a million would eventually call the state home.

Seeing these refugees, Carole was moved to produce Innertube Variant II, the torso and arms of a woman resting her head on an innertube.  It has been made and re-made since the 1980s in many forms, coming to be known as Survival of Serena.  

  Survival of Serena

Survival of Serena

In one of the first blog posts I wrote after I started working at the studio, I talked about the “Miniature Serena” I had been learning to lay-up with resin to make a piece in the edition:

Yesterday a senior fabricator, Natasha Rodriguez, started teaching me how to do the lay-up of one of Carole’s sculptures, a Mini Serena.  Serena is resting on an inner tube, her head on her arm.  She looks tired and self-satisfied.  Talking with one of the artists here, Heath Wang, he said he saw in it the story of a woman who has escaped abuse and created a new life for herself, and is resting in that moment of security she has created… I'm attracted to Serena's floating, mobile self-security.

Learning more about the history of Survival of Serena in the time since, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of Carole’s most important works.  This sculpture can be more specifically discussed in a political context as an immigrant narrative and a refugee problem.  The floating figure is a direct reference to the experience of crossing the water that Carole watched the balseros take again and again.  

That self-security is something Survival of Serenahas won on the back of her journey as an immigrant, and that is part of why the sculpture has remained one of Carole’s most popular pieces. It has a resonance through different refugee crises that the US and the world have encountered since.  Those who view Survival of Serena can connect it to the Cuban balseros, but it can also be linked to the Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran families that have been escaping Central American violence since the 1990s.

  A Mexican border patrol agent looks out at the river at the border with Guatemala. Photo by N. Parish Flannery @LatAmLENS.

A Mexican border patrol agent looks out at the river at the border with Guatemala. Photo by N. Parish Flannery @LatAmLENS.

That violence has roots in the United States.  Many Central American criminal organizations can be traced back to Los Angeles, the weapons they use to control and terrorize are primarily a US export, and the market that they sell narcotics to is the US.  Many of the migrants who flee this violence are children and women who choose not to cooperate with these gangs and are faced with death. They have an aspiration to become Survival of Serena, to have built their own self security.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is actively seeking to destroy that possibility for migrants from Central America and from around the world.  

The public debate on migration in this country is centered on the intense coverage of family separations occurring this summer on the US-Mexico border. It’s reported that more than 2000 children have been separated from their parents while those parents are being detained and tried criminally for illegal entry into the country, even if they have a legitimate claim to asylum.  Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has released recommendations for strict limitations on what an asylum claim looks like, by rejecting the threat of gang or domestic violence as valid grounds for a claim.

Additionally, Trump has successfully pursued a ban on travel and immigration of those from five Muslim-majority countries (along with North Korea and officials of the Venezuelan government), a ban which was recently upheld by the Supreme Court in Trump v. Hawaii.  Two of the countries, Syria and Yemen, are currently undergoing civil wars that the US fights in and supports, creating a massive refugee crisis that the Middle East and Europe have largely borne the weight of.  However, those Yemenis and Syrians who have family in the US and even with US citizen children are now unable to come to the US by any means, continuing the administration’s policy of family separation.

Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions aspire to destroy the meaning and hope of Survival of Serena’s meaning and to destroy that aspiration to a safe and peaceful life for those who are threatened by violence that is often a US export in the first place.  

Ultimately I just want to say this: more than half of the people who work in Carole’s studio right now were born outside the US, myself included.  Carole herself is born of immigrant grandparents escaping Hitler, and being allowed to have asylum in the USA. Our lives have been profoundly affected by the vagaries of policy around migration and immigration in this country and abroad. Making sculptures themselves is not an effective way to fight immoral policy, but producing symbols that have cultural resonance is tool that can be used to suggest moral, aspirational alternatives if the conversation around those symbols happens.

Carole says that Survival of Serena is a universal sculpture. She points to the fact that even for those who weren’t born outside of the US, migration have been a part of most families’ experience.  There have been so many different migrations: those who are refugees from war or famine or flood, those who survived the Trail of Tears and colonial terror, those who were enslaved, those who fled north during the Great Migration, those who moved to the suburbs, those who came to cities because rural economies were corporatized, those who escape their families, those who send money back to their families because there are no jobs at home.  I don’t know if Survival of Serena can speak to all of these histories, and exist in dialogue with them, then her mobile self-security is probably the best that all of us who are at the mercy of history can hope for.

—Craig Hartl

Her Subject is Human: Tools, Legacy, and Power

I’ve been making sculptures for almost five decades.  My pieces have been seen around the world since the 1970s.  When people see my work, they’re taken aback: children ask their parents if the figures are real people, they don’t know how to react to them, they’ve never seen anything like them.

Like every artist, my work is part of a historical lineage.  The art movement I’m associated with is called hyperrealism. The term was first used in 1973 as hyperréalisme by the Belgian art dealer Isy Brachot.  The show he put together focused on the American photorealists working at the time, men who made paintings that focused in specific and intimate detail on their subjects to reveal a truth that transcends what a camera can capture.  

The term became popular in the following years.  Artists like me that were building and painting life-like fiberglass or bronze sculptures came into its fold.  The term even reached back into time, and so the canon of Pop sculptures that artists like Claes Oldenburg and Duane Hanson were producing in the 60s and early 70s became part of the lineage too.

  Catalina, 1981

Catalina, 1981

For as long as there has been a thing called “hyperrealist sculpture” I’ve been someone who has shaped and defined the width and breadth of that movement.  However, in the production of the history of hyperrealism and even more broadly of life-like sculpture, I have seen my work passed over and reduced while my contemporaries have been elevated.

Institutions like the Met and MoMA have been central players in separating which practitioners become the canon of a movement.  Hyperrealism is featured prominently in a show on at Met Breuer right now called Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now).  I respect and value the 120 art objects that are included in the show, and in principal I don’t mind that my work doesn’t appear.  However, when I went to visit this show recently, it got me thinking about what differentiates my work from those of my contemporaries from the 1970s and 1980s.

So here we go: I think we should talk frankly about the operation of patriarchy in the art world.  

Here’s the thesis:

  1. Men’s voices have dominated the industry of art criticism. See Clement Greenberg, see the Royal Academy of Art, etc.

  2. Even when it comes to female subjects, the art that is valued is that which depicts the gaze of male artists. See the ratio of nude women subjects to women artists in the Met’s Modern Art Sections that the Guerrilla Girls made famous: 85% of the nudes are women, while only 5% of the artists are.

  3. Art which elevates the way a woman looks at anything, and maybe especially women, is written out of history.  See Romance novels, see Lifetime movies, see the silo-ing of feminist art.

This isn’t shocking to anybody, but I think that it’s worth repeating and considering, and I want to speak to what is lost by dismissing my perspective on female identity.

My sculptures of women are portraits of strength and power and balance.  They aren’t an allegory for these things, which of course has been a long staple of the use of women’s bodies in men’s art.  Instead, each figure is at a point in her personal journey that has allowed her to recognize these things in herself.

There is a wide functional gap between that depiction and those of my contemporaries John de Andrea and Duane Hanson.  Hanson’s figures play with a tradition of satire: they are unhealthy, they have a problematic relation to consumption, they are parodies of the American domestic image that was airbrushed into every magazine of the 1960s.  De Andrea’s sculptures have more to do with mine, in that the politics of his figures are less explicit; however he has acknowledged within his own oeuvre the particularity of his perspective, and the centrality of a heteronormative sexuality in his work.  

Left: One of Duane Hanson's Supermarket Shoppers.  Right: John De Andrea's Allegory, After Coutbet.

This is particularly on display in sculptures like de Andrea’s 1988 piece Allegory, after Courbet.  In this work, a female nude figure stands behind and gazes at a clothed male figure, who’s regarding an unfinished sculpture of a woman in his hands.  These works are wonderful I think, in that they openly talk about the gendered subjectivity present in all production and consumption of artworks. However, that is a beginning of that conversation, not the end.  De Andrea participates in that tradition: male artist, female subject, male gaze, male power.

My art subverts it.

The figures of women I create are not constructed for the male viewer to regard as a symbolic other, but for the human viewer to connect with as the vehicles of their individual lives.  Each of them is in a moment that holds their inner strength, their power, and the wisdom that they’ve gained from the challenges they’ve overcome in their lives. I think that’s at the heart of their success in the art market.  I also think that if hyperrealism is a tool, then my practice of representing women is an expansion of what that tool can be used for that’s worth noting.

  Midpoint, 2017

Midpoint, 2017

My pieces don’t confront you with their personhood. They mostly don’t stare out at you and demand a response.  That’s because they don’t need your gaze, their dialogue is internal, and that internal reality is something that has been left out of representations of women again and again.  I don’t want people to look back at this era of art making and say that the internal reality of women was missing from the practice, but when work like mine and from art makers like me is left out of the canon that is exactly how it will look, and the women artists after me will have to start from scratch again.  

That’s the function of the glass ceiling right?  My career has been to make this tool for talking about the experience and reality of women, and I want the artists who come after me to have that tool.  If I can’t break through into the canon, then they won’t have it, they’ll have to spend their careers inventing it for themselves and then never get to the point where humanity really moves forward, when we’re asking: alright, so what’s next?

—Carole Feuerman

Carole Feuerman in the Age of Trump

Here we are, one year into the Trump presidency. This past Saturday I attended a workshop event connecting different activist groups around the city, and one of the questions that came up in that room of organizers, educators, social workers, and students was this: how can people outside of those professions have a political voice and resist oppression?  I think Carole has been answering that question by taking steps to make the political context of her work explicit.

The size and shape of global culture is always changing, but certain reference points become the markers that define an era.  For many, the election of Donald Trump is the dashboard warning signal telling us the truth about our moment in time and culture.  It’s deceptive: Trump did not birth the world we live in.  However, his ascendancy has made it very difficult to deny that there are deep problems with our social system.  

This recognition of the shortcomings of the global political reality has been one of the biggest shifts in American culture in a long time.  Groups like Black Lives Matter that had been attacked in centrist media despite whatever evidence they have presented in support of their cause are now seen as part of the vanguard of the current movement.  The phrase “me, too” that activist Tarana Burke started using to talk about sexual assault in 2006 finally gained viral popularity in 2017, just months after Trump was elected despite the allegations of sexual harassment made against him.

Many powerful individuals have been called to take action.  As a successful woman in a male-dominated industry, Carole has been conscious of the political context of her pieces throughout her career; however, with this newest era she has been especially ignited.  

This past October in Houston, Carole spoke at the International Women’s Forum’s annual World Leadership Conference.  As part of the Ideas Remaking the World segment of the program she called on the women leaders in attendance to become explicitly engaged in the political world through their work.

 Carole Feuerman presenting at the 2017 IWF World Leadership Conference.

Carole Feuerman presenting at the 2017 IWF World Leadership Conference.

In her presentation (full speech available here), Carole highlighted Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer, and the Guerilla Girls as artists who have successfully “used their art to bring about change.”  She used that as a starting point to talk about a series of her own pieces and how they have been in dialogue with the political reality that she has been confronted with in her life.  This includes works that specifically responded to the news of the time, like Survival of Serena which was created the year after the Mariel boatlift, as well as others that speak more broadly to the position of women in a misogynistic world that has refused again and again to see or hear them.

Carole told me that getting the chance to speak about the context of her work at the forum was an unusual pleasure for her as an artist that speaks primarily through the pieces themselves.  I can understand that frustration; when you present an art object in a public space, as many of Carole’s pieces are, you know that many people will have the chance to see and think about your work but you’ll never find out what most of those people think, and they certainly won’t engage in your piece in the same way that you did.  Speaking to that crowd of leaders gave Carole a chance to frame her pieces for that audience the way she sees them herself.

 Carole talking to the crowd about her piece  Chrysalis and the World .

Carole talking to the crowd about her piece Chrysalis and the World.

There’s a complicated relationship between an artist, their piece, the context the piece was created in and the context of the viewers seeing that work.  That relationship is the rich tapestry of meaning that an art object is made of, and it is always changing as the elements that make it up change.  The materials age, the political reality shifts, events that were central to a public’s consciousness in one decade are forgotten.  Even further, when we experience an object any part of that tapestry of meaning can be hidden from us.

So you come into a room where you see two life-like sculptures of female figures.  One is from Carole, and one is from John De Andrea who was another hyperrealist artist in the 1970s.  Isn’t it important, even if the sculptures are superficially similar, that De Andrea is representing the female figure as an outsider to her gendered experience and Carole is depicting that figure as an insider?  

The comparison isn’t meant to be a value judgement between those two sculptures.  From an archaeological perspective, they both can say important things about the culture they’re created within.  It’s just important that the stories they tell about that culture might be different from one another.

At the same time as she attended the conference, Carole’s piece Chrysalis was part of a group exhibition at Pen + Brush in New York called King Woman.  Its curator, Mashonda Tifrere, put together a show of women-identified artists whose works demonstrate that women “are capable of being the pinnacle of power and strength.”  With her participation, Carole was asserting that she sees and experiences the norms of womanhood that society imposes upon her and her work.  However, that acknowledgement empowers her to subvert that imposition and define her practice on her own terms.

Carole is building a full calendar of resistance now.  After King Woman ended in December, she sent DurgaMa Buddha to Los Angeles for INTO ACTION.  INTO ACTION is a week long “social justice festival” where in a combination of installations, performances, and workshops artists are trying to “illuminate [their] resistance” and “take back [their] hope.”  

That combination of resistance and hope is what’s more important now than ever.  This Monday was Martin Luther King Day, fifty years now since his assassination.  This week is the one year anniversary of the Global Women’s March and of Donald Trump’s inauguration.  The air is electric, and it feels like there’s no time to waste.  What stories do we need to hear right now?

—Craig Hartl

To read the full text of Carole's speech to the 2017 IWF World Leadership Conference, click here.

The Carole Feuerman Studio in a Blizzard

After three weeks of work in the studio, intern Craig writes about some of Carole’s pieces and the jobs he’s been working on.

Three weeks now!  It hasn’t been so many days, with Christmas and the new year, but I’ve gotten more comfortable working in this studio and going between my head and my hands in the different tasks I’m doing around here.

We packed a giant woman into four crates on Tuesday.  She’s called DurgaMa, and she sits cross legged with her shoulders back on top of a flower.  Each petal had to be wrapped individually with Tyvek and foam, so that’s what I spent most of the day doing.  DurgaMa ignored me the whole time, half in a box and locked into her contemplation.  We’re sending her across the country to Los Angeles, to a show called INTO ACTION!

According to it’s organizers, INTO ACTION! “is a celebration of community power + cultural resistance, bringing together hundreds of the nation's top visual artists, activists and influencers for creative installations, powerful panels, and music performances,” and is starting already this Friday the 13th.  In this weather, I was thinking about crawling into the crates with her.

 Rob and Mathew pack a crate with  DurgaMa 's petals.

Rob and Mathew pack a crate with DurgaMa's petals.

A couple millennia ago, after Alexander’s empire fell apart, it was succeeded by a bunch of different Greek speaking kingdoms.  In the far east of the Hellenistic world were the Bactrian Kingdom and the Indo-Greek kingdom, and life in these kingdoms combined the conquering Hellenic culture with local traditions and practices.  The first anthropomorphic depictions of the Buddha come from this era.  These religious sculptures would be covered in schist so that they could be detailed down to the fingernails.

DurgaMa is syncretic, like the Hellenistic Buddhas.  On one hand, she is named after an aspect of Devi from the Shakti tradition of Hinduism, the warrior and creator goddess Durga.  On the other hand, this woman wears a one piece bathing suit linking her to the rest of Carole’s Swimmers series.  The curator Simeran Maxwell writes that the “graceful upturned faces” of Carole’s sculptures “present proud and confident women who revel in personal triumph and erotic liberation and in the sensual quality of water.”  Durga defeated the invincible buffalo demon Mahishasura after a ten day battle.  Maybe the contemplating woman depicted in DurgaMa is quietly sitting in the triumph of restoring balance after her own ten day battle with demonic forces.

  DurgaMa,  assembled.

DurgaMa, assembled.

Maybe she was dealing with frozen pipes.  As I’m sitting here in the studio writing about DurgaMa, I can see a blizzard that’s being called a “bomb cyclone” come down through the window.  I’m wrapped up in my biggest sweater and two pairs of pants.  It’s dissonant to look at and think about Carole’s swimsuit clad figures in the thick of a New York winter, the dissonance that comes from having your visual understanding of a situation contradicted by information that you get in other ways.  

Even without a blizzard, that dissonance is always present in Carole’s work.  It defies expectations to see drops of water that will never slide or dry, to see people that will always be relieved at their escapes but never get emotional distance from the moment.

Yesterday a senior fabricator, Natasha, started teaching me how to do the lay-up of one of Carole’s sculptures, a Mini Serena.  Serena is resting on an inner tube, her head on her arm.  She looks tired and self-satisfied.  One of the artists here, Heath, said he saw in it the story of a woman who has escaped abuse and created a new life for herself, and is resting in that moment of security she has created.

 Natasha's torso and the  Mini Serena  mold.

Natasha's torso and the Mini Serena mold.

I thought about that story as I was applying layers of resin and fiberglass to her mold, building up her substance from the outside of her skin in.  Is there a metaphor there?  I think so but I guess it's not about Serena's journey. 

Serena self-realizes, and it's impossible for me as another person in dialogue with her to replicate her self-realization.  Instead I have to begin at the level of her skin to work down to the things that give her strength and solidity.  If viewers can take that time to explore the narrative of an art object they interact with, exploring that object's material and spiritual reality, then they can learn what techniques they need to use inside themselves to replicate what they find appealing in that object.  I'm attracted to Serena's floating, mobile self-security; maybe in understanding her production I can find that security for myself.

—Craig Hartl

What's it like to start out at Carole A. Feuerman's studio?

A new intern started at my New York studio this week.  Craig is a graduate of Pratt in Brooklyn, where he studied product design, and he’s going to be gaining experience doing both writing and fabrication work for the studio.  I asked him to write a post about how his first week here has been:

I have worked a lot of different kinds of jobs.  I grew up in Scotland and Ohio, and ever since I moved to New York six years ago it’s been non-stop hustle.  Working for Carole so far has been validating because it feels like the different kinds of work and education I’ve landed in could all be useful in some way here.  Beyond that, her studio is a place where I’m going to have the chance to expand a lot of different skills that I’ve only been able to dip my toes into before.  Instead of spending all day yelling at tourists for the East River Ferry or getting paid under the table to package toffees Uptown, here I get to engage with the art world both as someone who can think and write about the work of a groundbreaking sculptor like Carole and who can work with my hands with the team that realizes her ideas.

 Getting down to business with  Survival of Serena.

Getting down to business with Survival of Serena.

Last week I translated Carole’s bio into German, my family language, and Greek, which I learned while attending a university in Athens for a year.  Translating an artist’s biography is a more difficult linguistic task than I expected it to be!  In Greek, I immediately ran into the problem that a direct translation of hyperrealism, “υπερρεαλισμός,” is a word that’s used in Greek to refer to the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century.  It took research on Greek art blogs that talked about Carole and her contemporaries to find out that the movement that she helped pioneer is usually referred to by its English name in Greek to avoid confusion.

In German, there was a different set of obstacles.  German has a lot of what are known as false friends: words that sound the same in German and English but have subtly different uses between the languages.  When I sent my draft to my papa to proofread, he had to remind me that while English uses the word sculpture for both the field of making sculptures and the sculptures themselves, Skulptur in German only refers to the art object produced and the field is usually called Bildhauerkunst.  Luckily these obstacles are enjoyable to overcome; by comparing the way words and ideas are talked about in different languages, it becomes more possible to precisely grasp the ideas themselves and the meaning that underlies the communication mode you’re employing.

In the end, this is one of the exciting things about art as a communication method.  The art objects that Carole produces are ways of producing a dialogue that you would conduct very differently in English or Greek.  That’s been the other engaging thing about beginning work in this studio: the chance to interact intimately with Carole’s work.

This week I waxed a giant inflatable swan at Mana Contemporary in New Jersey, and buffed up giant women to get them ready to show.  In New York, I worked on chasing a cast of a new sculpture and taping up a Balance to be ready for painting.  Spending more time with these sculptures makes room for the strangeness of the studio to sink into me bit by bit: beautiful figures surrounded by disembodied limbs everywhere, crates full of people, scale shifts that leave you unsure if you’re a giant or an ant.  My coworkers switching back and forth unconsciously between calling the sculptures hers, hims, and its.  Watching a models face get consumed by casting goop.  Getting spooked by the bronze bust of a man that I see behind me in the mirror every time I open the bathroom door.

 Heath works on  Midpoint.

Heath works on Midpoint.

I talked with the studio team a little about the surreality of the space, and according to them everyone adjusts to it eventually.  The works are their profession, they have to be rationalized and understood practically so that they can be produced to the highest quality.  I understand the necessary trade off, but for now I’m in love with the contrasts in this space, the fantastic interior reality of this artist’s studio invisible to the satellites passing overhead.  I’m thrilled to have the next three weeks of this internship in this space.

—Craig Hartl

Carole Feuerman’s Sculptures Installed Throughout Europe

Art lovers around the world will be going to Europe over the next five months to see the art chosen for the Venice Biennale, Art Basel and Documenta 14.  If you are going to Europe, you should stop in to see Carole A. Feuerman’s latest public exhibitions! Let me tell you about the shows that are currently in place. 

 

The first show you should see is her solo exhibition in Venice featuring ten iconic outdoor sculptures. Located right next to the Venice Biennale on the canal Arsenale stop, her sculptures are keeping the largest yachts company. This exhibition, “Personal Structures, Open Borders" is installed in the Giardino Della Marinaressa (Riva dei Sette Martiri, 30122 Venice, Italy) and is open to the public through December 5, 2017, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm daily, but her Venice shows do not stop there. Her works can also be seen in Palazzo Mora, Palazzo Bembo, San Clemente Palace, and Bel-Air Fine Art Gallery.

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