by Peter Frank
Carole Feuerman has always approached the human figure as a subject complicated by circumstance. In her hands a body is rarely just a body; although from time to time she will allow herself classical contemplation of the human form, she is far more apt to invest the body with socialized behavior, to place it in some sort of narrative context, to see it as most others expect to see it – active, engaged in the world, and clothed appropriately. Indeed, what distinguished Feuerman’s work from other figural sculpture – especially from other sculpture in the hyperrealistic vein – is the relationship it sets up between the nature of its abbreviation (what is not shown of the body) and of its vestment (what is shown of what the body is wearing). A hat or shirt or swimsuit bears the task of identifying the wearer, whose undistinguished face and excerpted torso betray no such identity. Only the position that partial torso takes, inferring a forward arc or a slumping relaxation, adds to the distinction its clothing provides. We know these people not by who they are intrinsically, but by what they seem to be doing in the moment.
When Feuerman produced her erotic sculptures, she wanted to bring to the surface the tensions that lie beneath the viewer’s relationship with the depiction of the figure. But she was also exploring how these tensions could be thus obviated, and relieved, within the complexities of her narrative formula. That is, in setting herself the goal of making renditions of the body that are explicitly designed to pique our carnal interest, Feuerman sought to do so by keeping the body clothed. Not very clothed, of course – but, equally of course, wearing clothing that would enhance the sculptures’ erotic signal. Indeed, in one sense the sculptures are about the clothing more than they’re about the body itself; there aren’t too many ways to articulate a perfectly formed behind (which in Feuerman’s hands literally becomes a “piece of ass”), but there are many ways of wrapping it in just enough material, cut in just the right manner, for optimizing its suggestive frisson. Cut-off jeans, swimsuit bottoms, short skirts, and of course underwear all fit the rear end snugly, frame it emphatically, and are invested with their own specific sexual association. Similar vesting of the breasts actually serves to diminish the great differences that pertain between women’s chests, and to pull them all towards the alluring function for which nature had designed them.
In a word, Feuerman conveys her erotic message by fetishizing the body – by excerpting it specifically to the erogenous zones, by posing it so that its secondary sexual characteristics exaggerate, and by putting it in clothing already invested with erotic association. A significant minority of the erotic works gains its power through the excerpted depiction of actual sexual encounter; but even here, the lover’s disembodied hands or arms serve as props to focus the sensual role of the portion of anatomy in view. In these, Feuerman moves the drama of sex into the next act, but she changes neither the purpose nor the method of the play.
While a significant minority of Feuerman’s erotic close-ups features men as the locus of desire, the majority concentrates on the female torso. This preponderance of feminine curvature – and feminine garb – seems an apparently sexist oversight, until one begins to examine Feuerman’s underlying social commentary. By subjecting mostly her own gender to her exaggerated version of erotic fetish, Feuerman literalizes the “male gaze” so criticized by feminist theoreticians. Rather than entertain or stimulate the entire populace, Feuerman reflects the sexual predilections of its dominant sector back at it. She represents sexuality as it has almost always been represented – and at the same time subverts the convention of this representation by exaggerating it, in form and in image, through excerption and vestment. In effect, she turns every viewer into a heterosexual male – and into a voyeur, appealing to a highly standardized, even ritualized range of fantasy. Feuerman’s sculptures fetishizing men seem in this context less a gesture of inclusion made towards female (including her own) and homosexual male desire than troubling of heterosexual male arousal. Straight men can be aroused by the thought of being the object of a woman’s passion, and can harbor homosexual fantasies as well, but the depiction of such encounters disrupts the standard relationship of the male gaze to the female body.
For all that, these confabulations, no matter who is at the center of them (and who is at the periphery), are still a turn-on. In their radical abbreviation and Pop-level fetishization, they ignite fantasy in both those who want them and those who want to be them. They are as absurd and aesthetically elaborate as soft-core pornography, and yet they are unabashed about revealing their sources in classical statuary. Indeed, their fragmentary nature suggests nothing so much as the shards of figures that turn up in Greco-Roman ruins. This only heightens the potency of their fantasy – and the potency of their social critique. In her erotic series Carole Feuerman reveals herself as a consummate tease – consummate because in that tease was a good scold. She questions not just the nature, but the function, of our lust, while promising everyone a good time.
Peter Frank: Curator of the Riverside Art Museum, CA, and curator of Feuerman’s one-person show, “Lust & Desire”, Art-st-Urban, Lucerne, Switzerland
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A word on the installation at art-st-urban: Installed as they are in the large bathroom, in strategic contraposition with the devices of our most private actions, Feuerman’s erotic works assume a new depth of intimacy. Their social edge is softened somewhat, their basic allure enhanced that much more, and yet in the clean white environment these voluptuous episodes seem all the more fantastic and intense.
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A speech at Art-st-Urban
Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Gentile Signore e Signori, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you all for coming this evening to the inauguration of this display of Carol Feuerman’s art. As you have seen, Carole Feuerman has taken a consistent formal approach to the figure in her sculpture for more than three decades. But the sensations she provokes can be very different from sculpture to sculpture. Her bathers embody the freedom of movement and the ecstasy of contact with water, that most nurturing of elements. Her other sculptures of the human body play with social conventions and sexual mores. And when she decides to make explicit the implications of eroticism that course through her oeuvre, Feuerman makes a display of our bodies’ sexual characteristics and of the way we hide and reveal those characteristics. Even as she celebrates the natural lustfulness of the body, she invites us to fetishize it.
When she produced her erotic sculptures in the late 1970’s, Feuerman wanted to bring to the surface the tensions that lie beneath the viewer’s relationship with the depiction of the figure. But she was also exploring how these tensions could be expressed in the context of a narrative. Small as they may be, each of the erotic sculptures gives us a glimpse of an intense encounter between two people – if not more. As importantly, every one of the sculptures includes clothing of some type. Unlike many of her other sculptures, Feuerman does not celebrate the human body itself in these pieces; she celebrates the human mind, where sexuality resides, and looks at how the body becomes the instrument of the mind as it reaches out to other minds through other bodies.
The minds to which Feuerman reaches out are ours, of course. These objects are capable of inspiring desire in us, even though they are as absurd and theatrical as soft-core pornography – or maybe because of that. But they inspire an aesthetic response to us, too, thanks to Feuerman’s technical skills and her sensitivity to framing and abbreviating the erotic encounters. Indeed, they readily reveal their sources in classical statuary. Their fragmentary nature suggests the shards of figures that turn up in Greco-Roman ruins.
Installed as they are in the large clinical bathroom here at art-st-urban, Feuerman’s erotic works assume a new depth of intimacy. Their social edge is softened somewhat, their basic allure enhanced that much more, and yet in the clean white environment these voluptuous episodes seem all the more fantastic and intense. The vast clinical space of the rest of the building frames Feuerman’s other sculptures in a similar manner. Conversely, we can say that Carole Feuerman’s sculptures bring new dreams to a place where people once dreamed and were cured of their nightmares. Danka, Merci, Grazie, thank you.
Peter Frank, June 18, 2007 Switzerland