Figuring it Outward
by Suzaan Boettger
April 24, 2003
Sculpture may renounce the overt illusion of the body, but covertly it represents the most intimate conception of the body.
In her sculptural manipulation of matter, form, and representation, Carole A. Feuerman plays with and against historical associations. Her recent bronze sculptures offer a Janus-like dynamism that at once looks backward to both to antiquity and Abstract Expressionism and forward to evocative syntheses of inventive facture and timely images. Feuerman’s work resonates between classicism’s stately composure and to the very topical urban tensions of our own day.
Since 1980, Feuerman has become known for life size super realist figures in painted resin, direct casts from models that are so precisely colored, clothed, and accessorized that the work achieves a deceptive illusionism. While some sculptures may be heads, busts, or even posed feet in ballet shoes, those enclosed parts of the human body exude a sense of wholeness. The figures’ gloriously vital bodies present the popular ideal of smoothly tanned and youthfully taut faces, torsos and limbs. The unblemished, scarless and unwrinkled purity of complexions and skin surfaces are often accentuated by Feuerman’s signature translucent water droplets. Frequently appearing on the bodies of lithe young women, these illusionistic beads of water not only suggest that the attractive swimmers are emerging from a pool. They also allude to the myth that Venus, Goddess of beauty and love, was born from the sea, famously depicted in the Renaissance by Sandro Botticelli.
Feuerman’s previous sculpture was predicated on the material being so lifelike as to be “invisible” – it trumped trompe l’oeil so that one saw through it to focus on the figure itself. At the same time one could not ignore the manipulation of the synthetic matter – the form’s anatomical perfection trumpeted the technical skill that created the illusion of reality. By the mid-1980s, Feuerman sought respite from the intricate painting required of her resin casts and began using a mixture of white marble dust and resin to cast parts and fragments of figures. Often in these, dual figures were entwined as lovers or family members; Feuerman called them her “Relationship” series. Seeking to expand her enjoyment of pouring into a more improvisational act, Feuerman turned from new synthetic materials to cast with the traditional sculptural material of bronze. To accentuate the metal’s capability of being poured, she devised an inventive way of handling it. She recalls
I had developed a way of melting metal to 2000 degrees and using the liquified ore as paint. The mold had been made by pressing a cast and carved maquette into a bed of sand. Completely covered inside a protective suit, gloves, heavy shoes and helmet, I poured, splashed and dripped various molten metals into the open horizontal mold.
Against the sand, the burning hot red streams of metal resembled arteries of blood, and as they were laid down, the figure seemed to be coming to life. As it cooled, the interlaid metals became hues of warm yellows, reds, blues, and browns. Working with the metal as diluted and flowing paint was a mesmerizing and magical experience.
The recent works are fabricated through a process requiring dynamic bodily engagement on the part of the artist. Technical mastery is still central, but smooth illusionism has given way to an intensely tactile physicality built up of irregular layers of dense swaths and pools of different metals. Feuerman now covers a horizontally-oriented sand cast with energetically flung and dripped ladlefulls of liquid metal. She applies the muscular gesturalism of Abstract Expressionist painting as when Jackson Pollock bent over canvas that had been unrolled directly on his barn floor to sling and drop diluted pigment. With the bronze, the spontaneous application creates rivers and dollops of metal that cool and harden to thick metal impasto. Alternating between metals with different hues of browns and greys as well as mat and reflective surfaces – thus propensity to absorb and reflect light – Feuerman effectively paints with metal to make sculpture.
With this new technique, the material component of Feuerman’s sculpture inverted from the seemingly invisible to conspicuously prominent. The surfaces of bodily masses are extremely detailed in their coloristic and textural variations, prompting one not to see beyond them to the figure represented, but to scrutinize the metal itself to observe its minute variations. It is as if signs of a body’s interior complexity have been pushed outward.
Also significant, the forms of the bronze works are now genuinely fragmentary. Aphrodite is a torso, a portion of the a female from groin to collarbone. In its headless, armless, and legless form, this nude suggests a fourth century bce marble found without those parts. (Albeit the body is not that of Praxiteles’s thick-waisted women, but has the length and slenderness of our own canon of beauty.) The overlay of two mixtures of bronze, European and Evador, create dense patches of gleaming and mat earthen tones. The figure is comprised of a front plane and a back plane; the rear articulates projections of shoulder blades and buttocks and indention of spine, but also has irregular holes in the surface, as if corroded. The front is intensely mottled, and with irregular, cragy edges as if eaten way by deep sea submergence or ages of climatic cycles. The wear and tear on the body, seemingly over centuries, but maybe over just a lifetime – is made evident. One’s mind completes the fragment, as in peripheral vision, yet the “missing” parts are not necessarily needed. The torso suffices to carry expressiveness, the facial features and limb gestures are not required. Even so, or especially so, this is the goddess of love as named by the Greeks, Aphrodite. Almost imperceptible on her abdomen is a faint heart shape of reddish patina, almost a birth-mark, which is yet a modern symbol indicating her identity. Love wears her heart on her belly, and has weathered the vicissitudes of life’s give and take.
The condensed meaning of a figural fragment also applies to Feuerman’s four larger than life size goddesses symbolizing the ancient understanding of the natural elements. Each is made up of a single molded panel, their concave sides as beautifully detailed as the front convexities. All stand with weight thrust to their right side in a pose of exaggerated classical-contrapposto-meets-elongated Gothic-hip slung-Madonna. In each, both hands touch the top of the head in a pose seen frequently in art history to expose and elevate the breasts. The jaw is lifted and the eyes look upward, or inward, giving the viewer a sense of unobserved scrutiny of the nude. But the statues are not identical. Each was individually cast using different amounts and combinations of metals. Aphrodite, with her source in the sea, represents water and has hues of iridescent deep blue and turquoise, which have been varnished, as if observed under water. Selene, goddess of fire, is made of a mixture of reddish copper hues; Asia, goddess of wind, is shiny silver, bright like a light- and air-filled sky; and Thea, goddess of earth, is covered with tawny autumnal colors. With their surfaces made of irregular splashes of bronze, the sculptural body suggests a either a representation of skin that is rough, chapped, and eroding or of lacy filigrees of a sparkling gown adorning the body.
Even in their cooled, hardened rigidity, the streams and blobs of bronze retain a look of intricate pliability. That provocative contradiction between material fluidity and stasis also extends to the contrast of manner of facture and resulting form. The sculptural object was created through spontaneous, freeform drips, yet the form it takes is that of a well-shaped, slender, youthful body. Its disciplined shape suggests the containment of those broad physical impulses that generated it. Yet in another provocative materiality, its rough surface gives evidence of being worked over, having weathered experience, and being penetrable, while roughly textured it is also a firm shell, a protection. These are experienced bodies, informed by art history and the artist’s hand and suggesting vicissitudes of personal history.
A world view incorporating past and present, evident in Feuerman’s figurative sculpture, has also taken form in recent years in sculptures suggesting shattered globes. Using her chance operation of loosely casting sand molds, Feuerman produced two hemispheres for each. The irregular edges of these deep, wide bowls made of a thin shell of gnarled metal were then aligned, concavity to concavity, to form open, punctured, spheres. Here the sense of an intensely experienced body extends to that of the world. The series was begun before the devastation of 911, while Still Standing(2001) was made on that day in an effort to move her studio crew away from absorption of the tragedy on television. Its gaping opening between the two sections, and holes within each, reveal inside a few brick and stone-like elements as if settled at the bottom after an explosion. These works evoke an attempt to put the world back together, while acknowledging qualities of age, wear, and brokenness.
With her transition from a primary material of cast resin or resin and marble to cast streams of bronze, Feuerman has intensified her sculptural object’s signs of physical and emotional expressiveness. The critic Donald Kuspit has remarked, “Some sculpture seems untouchable, other sculpture seems to imply the passionate embrace of material.” Feuerman’s innovative bronze sculpture manifests the latter engagement with both sculptural process and matter. Her move from explicit figuration to syntheses of representation and abstraction in fragmented and broken shapes invest these works with provocative allusiveness. Feuerman’s sculptures’s structural strength and tactile intricacy display a dyad of fortitude and vulnerability particularly meaningful to our time.
The epigraph is from Donald Kuspit, “Material as Sculptural Metaphor,” Howard Singerman, editor, Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art 1945-1986, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, New York: Abbeville Press, 1986, page 106. The subsequent quotation is from page 107.
Suzaan Boettger is an art historian and critic in New York City. Her recent book is Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (University of California Press).