The Sculpture of Carole A. Feuerman
Subtly and savagely, Carole Feuerman transforms her metaphysical beliefs as well as her personal anxieties and optimism into sculpture. Although the artist has from the beginning taken a humanist approach in her sculpture, her works increasingly reflect her philosophical anguish that human life and the world we live in are fragile. Seemingly beyond our control, forces tear us apart as individuals and as inhabitants of an endangered world and yet we must find the will to hold ourselves together and find remedies to heal the world’s wounds. Her recent sculptures forcefully express her spiritual quest. They can be seen as way-stations on a journey that ends in madness and dissolution or they may be seen as urgent distress signals or expressions that the artist externalized to bring us back to sanity and wholeness.
Feuerman works in two studios – one in New York City, the other in New Jersey. Her studio loft in Jersey City is an archive of the detritus of sculpting molds, cast body parts, and also serves as a living exhibition of her finished works of sculpture. The archive and the completed works span her more than three decades as a professional sculptor of consistent innovation.
All about the pouring of molten metals
The technique of sand casting, though ancient, is rarely used by sculptors today. Feuerman, however, has raised it to a highly sophisticated method of creating sculpture. Over several years of experimenting with melting various metals and then pouring, splashing and dribbling – much as Jackson Pollock worked with paint on canvas – she virtually reinvented the technique.
Through the Near East, Asia Minor and North Africa along the trans-Saharan trade route, early cultures worked with bronze and iron sand casting. This was the earliest technique used. It was a mystical and poetic experience. Despite, or perhaps through, the hellish fire and intense heat of the molten metals that she poured and layered (referred to as her “painting with fire”), she experienced similar sensations. This process, sensed but not fully understood, dangerous and at the same time exciting, remains magical even today.
For millennia, in the commonly employed lost wax process of making bronze sculpture, the artist only creates the maquette used to make a mold. After this, the artist turns the pouring of the metal into the mold over to the foundry technicians. The piece is finally chased and given a patina to produce the final art product. In sand casting, the artist pours the molten metal, heated to 2000 degrees, herself. Suitably attired in protective gear and face shield, the process is still dangerous. Although pouring materials into a mold was the technique used by Feuerman in her earliest resin sculptures, the freedom to pour several molten metals of various colors at one time allowed for gestural possibilities resulting in the layering of surface characteristics. From everyday subjects of swimmers, athletes, lovers, and young and old, and even her creating self as subject, she turned to subjects from classical mythology. Her first pieces were the goddesses Thea (Earth), Asia (Wind), Selene (Fire), and Amphitrite (Sea) that have astrological associations. To these were added Venus, Juno, Psyche, Vesta, Athena, Hestia, Briseis, Eros, Phaeton, Prometheus, Hermes, and Hephaestus. Her first spheres, “Neptune’s World and Pluto,” were named after planets. Her further pursuit of the sphere or world became expressions of her reaction to the tragedy of 9-11.
In reflecting on the meaning of 9-11, one year later, the playwright Tony Kushner observed: “Tragedy’s paradox is that it has a creative aspect: new meaning flows to fill the emptiness hollowed out by devastation,” Feuerman recent spheres are a case in point.
The artist’s work in bronze of the past several years represents not merely a change of medium but a major shift in conception. In Feuerman’s early works in polyester resin and in marble, the quality of the realistic features of the surface played a preeminent role in the works’ effects and their relation to the world. That changed with her concept of Maps. The variegated colors and complex surface textures of the figurative works served as metaphors for the topography of landscapes. However, maps not only chart the surface of things, but also the inner qualities of things, be they human, archetypes or planets. Achieving the external/internal mapping became the artist’s profound objective.
“Painting with Fire – Topographies” created by free-pouring, dripping and layering bronze and other molten metals into sand molds. These most recent works, the series of “Mappings” express, as symbol and metaphor, two strands of her thought – the cosmic (through the lens of astrology and Jungian psychology) and her emotional reaction to the earth.
Those philosophical concerns – human tensions and optimism – are similarly evident, in more abstract form, in the Maps of the World. In the 9-11-01 series, the worlds are torn and shredded but still form a perfect sphere. From her earliest works in hyperrealism to the latest bronze “abstractions” the artist goes beneath the skin to find meaning at the core. Thus, despite radical changes in representation and accompanying medium, Feuerman’s artistic trajectory can be sensed as a continuous development. The surface changed from hyperrealism to shredded maps of the skin (the viewer could see the interior as well as the exterior) and developed toward abstraction. In the process, she virtually reinvented herself – as, earlier, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other masters of the 20th century did. But, throughout the transition, her ability to communicate remained.
In Feuerman’s spheres, she depicts both new whole worlds, worlds torn apart yet still standing strong, and abused and partially devastated worlds all held together by paths, tunnels and bridges with visual metaphors of land and water masses but without political boundaries, a utopian promise of a new world order to emerge. Openings provide visual access to the interiors that are often “charred remains of something.” When applied to the deceptively simple form of the sphere, Feuerman’s individualistic sand casting technique produces results that evoke in the viewer a wide
variety of possible emotions.
Created in 1999, “Atlas World” is a crater surrounded by a shell with bones, bricks and a face inside (an intuition of what was to come?). In 2000 and 2001, respectively, “Neptune’s World” and “Pluto,” embody her serious pursuit of astrology and Jungian psychology. “Neptune’s World,” a true sphere, is a forerunner of her post 911 worlds. “Pluto,” on the other hand is neither a true sphere nor a world. Two half carapaces are joined at rough exerted edges, the whole resembling a walnut. The top and bottom enclose a mystery. Feuerman quoted Kahlil Gibran: “Your pain is but the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Breaking out of the quotidian shell is the leitmotif in most of Feuerman’s later works: breaking the shell (the hard skin, the Ego) is the necessary prerequisite for releasing the full potential of the soul.
While watching the tragedy of the Twin Towers on TV as it was developing, Feuerman was immobilized and brought to tears. Emerging from shock, she set to work, eventually creating five spheres dealing with the tragedy. “Still Standing I,”, “Still Standing II,” “911,” “A City of Nations,” and “Atlas World.”
On that fateful day, she began “A City of Nations " which is a jagged, gaping partial hemisphere with bits of slag ambiguously like survivors within its depth; the world blown apart is Ground Zero. However, within the cavity, she depicted a ramp with bits of metal representing people and animals in procession, ascending the ramp – a kind of Noah’s ark that redeemed the world after a prior world cataclysm. Despite the horror and anguish evoked by the World Trade Center destruction and the sculptural works that objectified it, Feuerman claims to be optimistic about the final outcome. Though the pain must be borne, the world must change to persist. Her statement to that effect was “Atlas World” – open and airy, with no borders. In myth Atlas shouldered the world. Today, ordinary human beings must bear the burden, if the world is to be saved. Despite the cycle of violence in the Near East, in India and other parts of the world, despite the mass murders and genocide that made the 20th century the most violent century in history, despite the world seeming to be riven at its seams, the world is holding together. The world may be pockmarked and battered by hate and violence, but it’s bulging surface augers a new fertility.
“911” (in evader bronze with a rock) is both fearsome and optimistic. The world is depicted with gaping holes but maintaining its overall globular form. The inside surface is an oxide green; a mysterious rock (perhaps the alchemist’s stone that will transmute destruction into creation) sits inside, at the core of the torn globe. “911- #2” explores the same theme but with more open spaces. Feuerman reminded me of her credo. “We can break the world open, but we cannot destroy it.”
In “AM and PM” two half spheres are separated and act in opposition. “AM” resembles helmet, an artifact of war (male); “PM” resembles a gourd, a receptacle that is a symbol of home and peace (female). Thus, chaos and civilization are balanced, though not reconciled. A third small piece, a “childlike” fragment that seems to have originated in “AM and PM”, lies on the platform below them. Can this be a victim, a survivor, an observer or the child of “AM and PM”, thus a new beginning?
Maps of the Body
Some figures struggle to hold together body and soul. It is up to the viewer’s sensibilities to decide in which state they appear to exist, and that will fluctuate according to one’s mood and attitude as these bronze figures exist in a region between the idealized and the fortuitous. In any case, they are beautiful, archetypal figures from Feuerman’s pantheon.
It is the combination of the studied and the intuitive, the ideal and the imperfect, that is as disquieting as it is satisfyingly beautiful. Each state is presented with the other, neither given priority. As Feuerman describes them, these fragmented body mappings are “experiments with abstraction, deconstruction and conceptualization, at the same time exploring the emotional life of their subjects, penetrating their spirit.”
As a result of her technique of pouring and layering molten metals, the variegated surfaces of her sculptures intrigue the eye of the beholder. Like African wood sculpture that largely depends on the play of unique surface conditions to make its ultimate statement, Feuerman’s figures must be read as maps of the body. Like African sculpture whose many surfaces marks reflect a history over time that empowers the sculpture in its many-faceted meanings, Feuerman’s surfaces are never merely the wrapping of the body but themselves convey meanings. She may be saying that though idealized beauty exists as a concept that can be captured, it is fleeting. There is energy that creates us and can tear us apart. Creation and destruction are two faces of the process that binds us all to the cosmos.
The set of four goddesses – Thea, Asia, Amphitrite, and Selene who represent the traditional four essential elements: earth, air, water, and fire – that Feuerman created when she first began bronze casting illustrates the point. These life-size, frontal, hollow-backed figures (intended for attachment to a wall) were cast from the same mold – that of a slender female with arms raised to her flowing hair, her forward thrust left leg giving prominence to the curve of her enticing right hip – differ from each other in color, surface quality and especially in the edges that define the boundaries of the pieces. We are witnessing an illusion as we regard the goddesses from a few feet to the right or to the left. Each goddess exists with her perfection and imperfections. The form is dynamic, like lava from a recent volcanic eruption. The very indeterminate quality of the edges is significant as indicative of the breaking of the main boundaries of the Id and Ego – the skin that separates the Me from Otherness. We are witness to Feuerman’s world of contradictions and illusions brilliantly illustrated and illuminated in this set of goddesses that must be viewed together to extract their full meaning.
“Psyche” is a more complex conception and experience. It challenges interpretation. She wears a beatific mask that hides her deepest feelings thus standing as an archetype of the human condition. Her head is “cracked open;” her hands are crossed over her breasts in what may be either embracing the soul within or simply a reflection of penetration from the outside; her body is a morass of crisis-crossed strands or filaments of bronze held together by more solid portions of the torso. Thus, the external skin from which we normally gain our sensual perception of a work of sculpture is pierced and perforated to reveal an interior struggle of the “psyche”. Again, ecstasy and anguish are embodied as facets of the unity of the soul, perhaps, even, by implication, of the cosmos itself.
In pursuit of her belief in astrological metaphysics, Feuerman gave form to “Uranus” and “Neptune” as spheres – her earliest work in that form. In astrology, Uranus is the creator and instigator of sudden change, whereas Neptune represents the homeostasis of illusion and delusion. Venus (or Aphrodite) is the principle of love and beauty and is the harmonizer that produces balance between the two conflicting dynamics. The significance of Venus determined that Feuerman would treat the theme of Venus’ Aphrodite in a number of figurative bronzes: “Venus in Lace,” “Venus III,” “Aphrodite,” and “Silver Venus.”
In “Venus in Lace,” the varied metallic colors, a haunting mauve and a brilliant bronze, work together in perfect harmony to create a beautiful “classical” torso. In this surprisingly serene work there is a diagonal shifting of the weight from the breasts down to the legs. “Juno,” the protector of marriage and young women, is the back view of an exquisite torso, the layers and streaks of the once molten bronze closely compacted in a unique surface not seen on her other bronzes. Even the perforated openings in Juno’s back seem to add to the lyricism of the piece. On the formal level, once again, we become aware of Feuerman’s ability to co-opt the leatory to create the unexpected. Beyond that, however, the figure of Juno appears to harbor more profound meanings.
In other torsos, such as “Aphrodite,” “Athena” and “Vesta: Eternal Flame,” her melding of idealized form with rugged, potted and unpredictable surfaces can evoke conflicting feelings that can be both tender and foreboding. Therein lies the enigma and power of her work. The hard, yet viscous metal, the idealized yet abstracted figures, play with our sensibilities and our emotions simultaneously. What we see is not to be taken at face value.
The female torsos, without head and ending indeterminately at the thighs, seem like survivors of an ancient Greek shipwreck raised from the depths of the sea after millennia of submersion and the work of corrosion. Poseidon (Neptune) however, must have taken a shine to these bronze beauties while they dwelt in his realm as their fleshiest parts seem to have been well polished – again, an interplay of contradictions, corrosion and sensuality.
Her other subjects taken from classical mythology include gods, goddesses and other personages: Juno, Vesta, Athena, Hestia, Briseis, Eros, Phaeton, Prometheus, Ares, Hermes, and Hephaestus. Although “Neptune’s World” and “Pluto,” her early spheres, were named after planets, her further pursuit of the sphere became expressions of her reaction to the tragedy of 9-11-01.
“The Hug” stands apart from the mythological figures. It is an interpretation in bronze of a human theme explored earlier in poured marble. In it, Feuerman addresses the relationship between man and woman. The piece speaks to use about the delicacy of human love and feelings and the mutuality of giving and taking. The essence of the subject is given a minimalist expression. What is represented is the rear of a female torso held at the waist in an embrace by hands of an implied lover. A rich copper oxide green, the hallmark of antiquity, suggests the universality of the theme. Here, as in the other Maps of the Body, the surface interplay of light and dark, shiny and dull, thick and thin, solid and perforated contribute to a complex sensory and emotional experience.