Fleeting Moments, Universal Truths: Discovering the Gods and Goddesses of the Everyday

by Richard Friswell

My first encounter with Grand Catalina (2005-11) came unexpectedly, as I thumbed through the pages of the gallery section of an art magazine. Her uplifted face, eyes closed, suited and capped for laps in the pool, skin still moist with droplets of water as she appears to slip from the water, riveted me in an unexpected moment of intimacy with this life-like image. Lashes and brows neatly arrayed, the pouting lips appeared ready to gasp for a breath of pool-side air. If her eyes were to finally open, I wondered if she would be surprised to see me—a stranger, so close by!? The work conveyed a sense of strength and capability, while also offering an alluring vulnerability and sensuality. In the few moments that I studied the image, I imagined that this larger-than-life-sized figure, seemingly brimming with self-assurance, would have no difficulty managing whatever the world handed her, once she finally emerged from her momentary reverie.

This, I would soon learn, was the work of New York realist sculptor, Carole Feuerman. A veteran of over four decades of creative work in many sculptural mediums—including resin, marble and bronze—Feuerman sculpts life-sized, monumental and smaller-scale works that encompass her signature trompe-l’oeil technique. Feuerman shares a hyper-realism tradition with artists like Duane Hanson and George Segal, but with a critical difference: approachability.

When hyper-realistic sculpture first appeared on the gallery and museum scene in the 1980s, these iconographic figures served as a timely, three-dimensional narrative for a human condition steeped in stereotyping and emotional objectification. It was time for the Me Generation, characterized by self-absorption and enhancing personal status. Reflecting that contemporaneous motif, Duane Hanson’s Tourists or Queeny were works based on social and class-based stereotypes, to be mentally catalogued and observed from a distant, carefully-proscribed insular world—like characters in a wax museum—seen, but seldom touched. George Segal ‘s somber, unpainted plaster cast figures were often arranged in groups, appearing like actors in an urban drama, suggesting alienation, latent aggression and indifference; or as single, expressionless figures trapped in a world of secretiveness, isolation and emotional alienation—quietly-despairing characters in a disconnected world.

For Feuerman’s work—sculpted first in plaster, then cast in bronze or resin, before being meticulously painted—the effect is not alienation, but intimacy. Her mostly-female forms appear to radiate an inner life, one of both mysterious sensuality and self-possessed consciousness, all-the-while inviting inclusion in their personal space. If the eyes are the window to the soul, her sculptures, portrayed predominantly with eyes closed, are denying us access to those deepest realms-of-consciousness that might resolve the mystery. Instead, Feuerman tantalizes and seduces the viewer, offering a voyeuristic connection to the personal space behind the eyelids of her figures. We are invited to watch a lone female figure emerging from a shower as she wraps a towel around her hair; another floating languidly in an inner tube; another appearing to stand waist-deep in a pool, hugging a large beach ball; yet another grips the end of a surfboard as a wave presumably surges around her. The artist draws the line at the act of seeing; engaging the viewer, while depriving us of the ability to ever ‘know’ the true spirit of the character. Herein lies the power of the artist’s statement.

Feuerman’s figures, in spite of their nakedness or isolation, exude confidence and personal power. Freshly emerged from their cleansing bath or pool, her Eve-like creations are still dripping with fresh droplets of water—a symbol of their close ties to nature’s life-giving force. As David Rubin, of the San Antonio Museum of Art said, in a recent review, “As females, these figures personify heroic archetypes, women who are proud of their bodies and triumphant in their achievements. As metaphors, they are expressive of hope and determination, and of the faith that accompanies the drive to push forward on life’s journey, regardless of the challenges or obstacles that threaten to deter us.”

In no small way, this critique of Feuerman’s work is a reflection on the trajectory of her career as a sculptor. Emerging as an artist in the early years of the Feminist movement, she decided early-on to produce work that challenged the tiresome cliché of the woman as ‘the weaker sex.’ From the beginning, Feuerman committed herself to working with the human form. The raw power of her imagery, more literal and figurative than symbolic, she worked to transcend the ascription of erotic or provocative and instead, represent personal power and the pure narrative essence of objective realism in her rendering of the human body. The risks in becoming a hyper-realist were great. Functioning artistically on the verge of the simulacram threatens to produce an empty, representational shell—imitative and convincing—but devoid of emotional intent. But, Feuerman’s sculptures exceed the bounds of mere mimicry to become powerful symbols for the human experience. The philosopher, Nietzche warned that any effort to imitate reality relies too heavily on constructs of reason and language, to the exclusion of the senses. The result, he claimed, would be a mere perversion of the truth.

But, Feuerman’s hyper-reality, guided by keen sensory instincts, borne of life experience, and finely-tuned artistic sensibilities, results in sculpture that achieves a universal truth: a strong emotional tie between subject and object—between the viewer and the viewed—that invites an intimacy and level of empathy not often found in a creative endeavor such as this. Far from detachment, a figurative work like Paradise (1997), invites us all to imagine a time when we could once again (or wished we could) float thoughtfully on a raft in a warn sea on a languorous August afternoon.

On a recent visit to Carole Feuerman’s studio, we discussed the primary motivation for her work. While one of the foremost hyper-realist sculptors in the world, she is yet modest and unassuming. She does not view her work so much erotic or sexual, as sensual and meditative. “I want to capture the universal feeling of the fleeting moment. When my figures are rendered with their eyes closed and deep in thought, it’s like I’m presenting a story in the making. I want the viewer to complete the narrative, she tells me.” Her studio assistants busy themselves during the time I am there, shaping plaster forms, readying molds, applying base coats on nearly-completed figures, all under her careful direction. “I am the only one who can paint the final layers of the skin. The difficulty comes when it is time to represent those subtle features, like veins and blemishes, which lie just below the surface and help to create a feeling of authenticity.”

In fact, Feuerman’s studio is part gallery, too. Work from several periods of her prolific career are on display, offering up a gathering of now-familiar personas who have turned out to see what comes next! The sculpting room is generously confectioned, from floor to ceiling, with plaster dust. Row upon row of shelves are stacked high with errant body parts of every type: spare heads, torsos, hands, ears and feet—a surreal, contemporary laboratory-setting for creating the next Prometheus. A work-in-progress lies prone on a work table: a life-sized male figure in plaster, slated to become an athlete doing a hand-stand. Together, we lift and balance the figure against a column, as Feuerman checks for anatomical accuracy with a view to balletic grace in the final product. This is art by consensus, as the whole production team (including this author) weighs in on the details of the final execution. Nearby, a serene female figure Tree (2009-11), nude except for a bathing cap, patiently observes. As though having just risen from the sea, in a perfectly-proportioned, 21st century version of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, she appears to be quietly marveling at all the fuss.

Across from the showroom and office area, and far-removed from the welter of plaster appendages, is the painting room. There, Feuerman’s assistants sit meditatively—like monastic scribes toiling over illuminated manuscripts—applying layer-upon-layer of paint to figures now waiting patiently for their turn to be ‘brought to life.’ Mounted on panels or sitting on table tops, the addition of lashes, brows, hair and (in some cases) acrylic water droplets, the artist’s final touches, completed with her signature style, will be the jolt of creative energy that finally animates these figures.

Feuerman’s sculpture walks the fine line between reality and deception, inviting us to explore our emotional response to this nexus. The syncretic link is the artist’s realization of the intense physicality, passion and sensuality found in her figures’ otherwise mundane poses. “My work is about relationships,” Feuerman explains, “exploring the secret interiority of the individual and a woman’s relationship to herself. I hope to touch an emotional level that might otherwise be inaccessible. My objective is to do more than breathe life into my sculptures, but to explore the inner life of the character, much like a novel might.” Is it autobiographical, I ask? “Perhaps, but, I like to think of my works as larger than life—gods and goddesses of the Everyday.”

Critic, John Yau addressed the material connection between the viewer and Feuerman’s figures in a recent review. He states that, “[her sculptures] evoke an inner life, one that invites the viewer’s speculation as well as signals the distance between them and us. We can never know what they might be thinking. And that perhaps is the point. […] We see their bodies, but not their souls. By having their eyes closed, Feuerman inflects a fundamental aspect of her sculptures: they exist in the same physical world as we do, but they are also removed from us. This inflection causes the viewer to become self-conscious; looking is framed as an act of voyeurism.” But, unlike the voyeur, these figures are inviting us to share in the ecstasy arising from the simple sensual pleasures of water, sun and air—leading by example, rather than inclusion in their private reverie.

Feuerman has recently begun to explore the kinetic effects of water on her bathing figures. “Water is the universal connection to life,” she tells me. “An important new phase in my work will be to incorporate computer technology developed recently that projects an image on the floor or wall and will respond realistically to physical touch. Sculpted figures can be bathed in a large field of blue light that realistically ripples when the movement of a toe or hand is introduced. “This kind of interactive sculpture can heighten the sense of connection to the work and give the viewer a real-time experience with the installation,” she explains. Feuerman said the technology is ready and hopes to introduce it in a number of upcoming shows, both in the U.S. and Europe.

This latest phase in Feuerman’s oeuvre represents another round of experimentation in hyper-realistic sculpture’s ability to extend beyond the boundaries of literalism and mimicry, to endure as a rich commentary on contemporary life. Her keen observations of the smallest gesture, the portrayal of flesh as a complex, viable organ capable of sweat, blemishes and myriad flaws, the private joy of sensuality, eroticism and self-assuredness portrayed through subtle gestures and the narrative elements of her work—inviting a push-pull between the visual and tactile— have continued to resonate. As the critic, David Bourdon wrote, “What makes [Feuerman’s technical proficiency] all the more powerful is that everything she does is in the service of the figure; all her attention is devoted to achieving verisimilitude. The works are like mirrors, but, like the mirror one encounters in fairytales and myths, they reveal a deeper truth about us.”

In her conversation with me, the artist underscored that she wants her sculptures to function as a book, revealing glimpses of the inner life of her characters. But, while messaging in the visual arts, unlike story-telling, is denied the luxury of unfolding over time, Feuerman’s work nevertheless embodies the element of time as an essential component of its impact on the viewer. Her narrative is never fully disclosed, often hidden behind closed eyes and self-satisfied gestures of confidence and eroticism. This rarified atmosphere of self-confidence, mystery and anticipation opens the door to a range of reactions and feelings. Each work, carefully crafted to defy simple interpretation and deflect full disclosure, becomes a Rorschach test—or perhaps a tabula rasa—onto which we project our own impulses, thoughts and emotions. Feuerman’s sculptures may seem frozen in time, but they persist in revealing themselves at particular moments of intimacy, heightened sensory awareness and vulnerability; thereby inviting us to consider our physicality, and our own stories, during an encounter with her work; asking whether we could embrace, once again, the sensual world that we, too, once knew this well.