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.