Eros and Introspection: Carole Feuerman’s Body Sculpture

by Donald Kuspit


Figure after figure, mostly female:  Carole Feuerman’s women are everyday Venuses, as it were.  Many are majestically naked, having completely thrown off the disguise of the mundane–the bathing suit that reveals more of their body than it hides, the towel with which they dry themselves (a witty reprise of that ancient token of female modesty, the fig leaf)–to emerge unashamed and naked, like the mythical Venus, from the sea, finally revealing themselves as the goddesses they are.  It is an epiphany of candor, with no loss of female mystery (all the more so when the towel is displaced upward to the hair, as in Reflections, 1985 and Nude Coming Through the Wall, 1991, thus ironically revealing the loins it is meant to hide while signaling their mysterious inner sensuality, for hair is suggestively sensual).

Each and every body is meticulously rendered, and alive with urgent feeling, even when it is no more than a fragment–a torso or foot, a face or elbow–symbolic of a grander femininity, indeed, of the eternal feminine.

Feuerman clearly knows the female body from the emotional inside as well as the physical outside.  And she knows her materials:  oil painted resin and vinyl, marble and patented bronze, are always handled with insight into their properties.  It is the same insight she has into the female figure: after all, they are the materials of her flesh.  This stunning variety of materials, along with the variety of poses of the female figure–many reminiscent of classical Venuses, indicating Feuerman’s knowledge of art history (Lady Neptune, 1997 is an example)–clearly indicate that Feuerman is a master of the female body and soul as well as a consummate sculptor.

To call Feuerman a representational artist is to miss the point:  she is representing a state of female mind not an alluring body meant to attract the so-called (predatory) male gaze.  Whether standing in a Shower, 1981 or curled in a Cocoon, 1986 or confronting us with her beautiful breasts, as in Eros, 1984 and Aphrodite, 1992, and with particular dramatic frontality in Nude Coming Through the Wall and Jupiter Adorned, 1998–clearly versions of what the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein calls the (mythically) good breast, at once intimate and ideal, perennially satisfying and thus always perfect–Feuerman’s females are meant for the (self-reflective) female gaze.

That is, they are meant to make women aware of themselves as potentially men’s sana in corpora sano–autonomous, integrated beings, radiant with emotional and physical health.  Toasting to Your Health, 1981 makes the point clearly.

Men are accessories in Feuerman’s sculpture; indeed, extensions of healthy female narcissism, as the “incidental” male hands in Embrace, 1986, The Hug, 1997, and The Hug, Giving and Taking, 2000 make clear.  The latter is a patinated bronze version of the 1986 smooth-skinned marble version, from which the male figure has all but disappeared, leaving his hands behind–if they are his hands.  Indeed, perhaps the woman in The Hug is hugging herself, as the woman in Shower and Angelica, 1994 do.  Psyche, 1998 prefers to hug herself–she has no need of a man, that is, no need of Cupid, to refer to the fable of their relationship.  Is that a male hand reaching up to drag woman down in The End of the World, 1984?  The male and female Lovers, 1986 seem to be on equal terms–they’re absorbed in each other, or rather in their kiss–but neither has a particularly strong identity (one tends to lose individuality making love), as Feuerman’s female figures do when they’re by themselves.  Relationships with men are passing relationships, as Passages through Relationships, 1986 suggests.  Feuerman prefers to relate to herself, as mirrored through other women.  The Winner, The Runner, both 1986 and Lifeguard, 1994 are hollow men–all surface and no depth–compared to Feuerman’s women.

Men don’t matter much in Feuerman’s oeuvre, yet works such as Hands of Prometheus, 1998 and Hephaestus, 1999 suggest that Feuerman identifies with men to the extent they are creative and as such powerful gods–artists.

Indeed, gods and goddesses–and artists–have the power to create, that is, to transform old worlds into new worlds (and sometimes to create completely new worlds after completely destroying old ones).  Feuerman’s bronze sculptures, with their aura of molten transformation, suggest the simultaneity of destruction and creation, for they are as much about their own making as about the divine bodies that she makes:  her gods and goddess are in perpetual process of ambiguous becoming rather than finalized beings.

If the artistic process involves unmaking as well as making, then the expressive moltenness of Feuerman’s bronze sculptures deftly embodies its doubleness.

They are in fact as much about working with metal–traditionally a privileged masculine enterprise, as Mircea Eliade tells us in The Forge and the Crucible (metallurgy was thought of as an esoteric alchemical process, involving the transformation of prima materia into ultima materia, that is, heavy, dark, base lead into ethereal, luminous, refined gold)–as they are about rendering an idealized figure.  Feuerman’s exquisitely intimate “wounded” spheres, some split open in acknowledgement of the destructiveness of 9/11/01–Atlas World 9/11/01, World on 9/11/01, Still Standing #1 and #2 9-11-01,  and finally the outermost planets Pluto  and Uranus, symbols of death and darkness–condense the alchemical process in a singular object that conveys its cosmic import.  Feuerman’s spheres are ingenious mementi mori of the traumatic experience of making art–for many thinkers the alchemical process is inherently traumatic and the essence of art–as well as the trauma of 9/11/01, which tore the world, and with it the self, apart.

For once Feuerman turns away from the human figure, suggesting the loss of life on 9/11/01, to deal directly–and abstractly –with the core of the self and the essence of art, each implicated in the other, and both catastrophically split, as though permanently divided.

According to Greek mythology Prometheus sculpted the first human being and Hephaestus was the god of fire and metalworking–both are clearly self-symbols for Feuerman.  Feuerman also portrays Ares, 1999, the god of war.  Hephaestus and Ares have a perverse connection:  the lame Hephaestus–is that lameness reflected in the “lamed,” fragmentary, oddly flawed look of Feuerman’s sacred bronzes? (Bronze is a sacred material, for it is as immortal as the gods, and thus the appropriate material to embody them)–was married to Venus and cuckolded by her:  she slept with Mars.
Perhaps more importantly from Feuerman’s point of view, she stripped Ares of his power:  another triumph of woman, which is what Feuerman’s sculptures are about.

As her figures lose their everydayness to reveal their mythical–indeed, archetypal–character, they become more sublimely female than ever, as Blue Venus, 1996 makes clear.  Feuerman’s male Eros is in fact as sensually sublime as any of Feuerman’s female goddesses, however different his shape (he is bigger and broad shouldered, and his waist forms a tight angle while theirs is a long curve).  For Feuerman, male god and female goddess are not simply opposite sides of the same spiritual coin.  Instead, the male god is assimilated to the female goddess by way of his sensuality, evident in the excited texture and as well as voluptuous shape of his body.  Feuerman has in effect taken over Eros’s generative power–the power of inspiring love–which is one reason why one falls in love with her hyper-sensual, even transcendentally sensual figures.  It really doesn’t matter whether they are Diana I  and Athena, or Eros I  and Eros II, God of Desire, all 1999.  Venus III and Adonis are equally voluptuous, and Amphrite–Goddess of Sea, Asia–Goddess of Wind, Thea–Goddess of Earth, and Selena–Goddess of Fire have the same elemental creativity as any muscular Titan.  They are in fact female Titans–pre-Olympian figures that symbolize the elemental forces of nature.  Thus, even when their bodies seem to disintegrate in fire, Feuerman’s goddesses retain their erotic beauty and integrity.  Looking at them, I couldn’t help but recall the ancient story of a Greek youth who fell in love with a statue of Venus, and worshipped it by kissing her buttocks–the buttocks so prominent in many of Feuerman’s figures, especially when seen from the back.  Their subtle polish as well as sensual shape gives them as much power over the spectator as the equally perfect breasts of the goddess.  What is art if one can’t love it?

In short, it makes all the difference whether one is a female artist with a female model or a male artist with a female model.  There is a basic difference in attitude:  Feuerman’s more hyper-realistic—hyper-smooth–sculptures have been linked with those of John D’Andrea and Duane Hanson, but for the former woman is a sexual object while for the latter she is a social type.  In both cases she is more object than subject.  She lacks the reflective inwardness that Feuerman’s figure has–inwardness signaled when she looks inside herself, into an emotional space we cannot see, a private space at odds with her very public body.  However voluptuous and desirable, she has an inner life–an inner life she takes seriously, as her introspective glance suggests, even if the man looking at her body never does, as is likely the case in a patriarchal society.

Feuerman’s female figures are implicitly a criticism of it:  when the female figures in Catalina, Shower, Angelica, Capri, 1981, City Slicker, 1982, and Paradise, 1997 close their eyes in introspective ecstasy, they are turning away from man and declaring–demonstrating–their self-sufficiency and independence.

So does the woman in Cocoon:  she is turned in on herself, creatively gestating without male input.  These women don’t need a man to be satisfied; they are satisfied being themselves.

The adolescent female bathers in Inner Tube, 1984, Brook with the Beach Ball, 1988, and Marita, 1992 (also with an inner tube)–the tubes and ball are ingeniously used as pedestals for what is in effect a portrait bust, and the “inner” character of the tube suggests that these girls, however young, have an intense inner life–seem to be asleep or resting, as their closed eyes suggest, but they are as self-contained, autonomous, and introspective as Feuerman’s more mature females.  The closed circle of the tube and sphere suggest as much.  Even Feuerman’s proud Tomboy, 1988 has triumphantly closed eyes.  She may be male-identified, but she has the subjective presence and interiority that Feuerman’s male figures lack.   She is on her way to becoming the introspective figure in Remembrance, 1996, and perhaps the pensive woman in Sunburn, 1984.  She may even become a beautiful Persephone, 1998, her eyes closed in indifference to Hades, her abductor.  But then the underworld to which he brought her is her own unconscious–her own inner depth–suggesting that he was a means to an emotional end, however much she was a means to his sexual end.  For Feuerman, woman’s beauty, however sexually seductive, is a symbol of her integrity and mystery.

Suggesting that woman looks at herself differently than man looks at her, Feuerman’s sculptures also suggest that woman is more innately creative than man.  After all, she can give birth to life, which is what Feuerman does through her art, even though it is female life she prefers to give birth to.  Feuerman is in effect a female Pygmalion struggling to sculpt the perfect female–she is in fact a perfectionist, as her exquisite execution indicates.  Feuerman’s ecstatic, confident, inward-looking female figure also suggests that woman’s desire is more insatiable, oceanic, and creative than man’s desire, which tends to be specifically sexual rather than broadly erotic–eager for discharge rather than coloring  reflection, which it supports by encouraging loving connections between thoughts (just as Eros encourages loving connections between people).  Compared to women, men are indifferent to the subtle qualities of desire and its cosmic influence.

Thus woman is more authentically erotic than man, who remains useful for sexual encounters, as Feuerman’s “relational” sculptures show, but who lacks the transcendent Eros of Feuerman’s goddess. It is this Eros that finally breaks through the hyper-objective veneer of her early secular females.  It is the sacred fire of Eros that melts it, leaving behind the subjective residue of a figure.  It is an alchemical fire–for Feuerman there is no difference between destructive-creative alchemy and Eros (both dissolve “hard facts” into fluid feelings that is, objectively given bodies into subjectively resonant bodies)–that transforms mortal woman into immortal goddess.  Feuerman’s molten bronze goddesses are more haptically realized than her hyper-smooth bathing figures, with their beads of water–the latter are grossly rather than elegantly haptic–because they are spiritually as well as physically convincing.  Her bronze goddesses are more obviously spiritual than her resin, vinyl, and marble figures:  it is the difference between sacred and profane love–Eros from the inside and Eros from the outside, as it were.  In fact Feuerman’s goddesses seem to possess the mysterious inside that Feuerman’s everyday females signal through their introspection but do not clearly possess.

In the course of tracing woman’s life from innocent childhood through robust youth to unsightly old age (however much more emphasis there is on the middle period)–taken together, Feuerman’s sculptures form a cycle of female life, with an eccentric affinity to the trio of emblematic female figures in the lower left section of Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-98–Feuerman shows her becoming more spiritual and less worldly.  Certainly Feuerman’s goddesses are not as worldly as the glamorous, tipsy woman in Toasting to Your Health, among other things an ingenious and ironical rendering of good fortune, traditionally represented by a devious woman standing precariously on top of the world.  Burning the ship of her body in the fire of Eros, Feuerman’s woman becomes pure spirit, and thus more emotionally engaging–even to male eyes–than sexually arousing.  In the bronze sculptures Feuerman has achieved what may have her unconscious goal been all along:  to generate empathy for woman, thus inviting men to replace their lust for her body with tender regard for her spirit.  In the end spirit is more erotic than flesh, for it lasts forever.  But then the bronze sculptures may show female flesh renewing itself, like a phoenix in fiery flight.