States of Ecstasy and Self-Realization

John Yau


Carole A. Feuerman is a realist sculptor working in materials ranging from marble and bronze to vinyl and painted resins. Whether she is using ancient processes and materials or contemporary ones, her subject matter is the human figure, most often a woman in an introspective moment of exuberant self-consciousness shaded by erotic lassitude. Her exuberance is partially the result of rather ordinary circumstances; she has just stepped from the shower or is resting on an inner tube in a swimming pool.

From an art historical perspective, Feuerman is one of a small number of postwar sculptors who successfully rejected Minimalism in favor of the human figure. These sculptors faced a daunting challenge, which was how to make a freestanding sculpture of the human figure that didn’t appear nostalgic, and that didn’t look back to the heroic work of Rodin.  The challenge is clear enough: how do you keep the figure intact without being wistful for that moment before Impression dissolved forms and Cubism shattered the world.

At the same time, Feuerman shares something with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who took leisure as one of their primary subjects. In Edouard Manet's painting, Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874), the viewer sees a woman and child standing on the riverbank.  A few sailboats are visible in the river, waiting. The boats’ primary function is to provide pleasure, a subject that Claude Monet, Pierre Renoir and Georges Seurat also explored in their work. 

Among contemporary postwar sculptors, Feuerman has affinities with John de Andrea, Duane Hanson, Marisol, Mary Frank, and George Segal, other figural sculptors who thrived in the face of the challenge to make work that took the human figure as the primary subject. The significant difference between Feuerman’s lifelike sculptures and those made by the sculptors I have just mentioned is twofold.  First, her subjects are caught in a moment of transition that radiates an intense eroticism. Second, her figures seem capable of thought. They evoke an inward life, which 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.

Feuerman makes this state of seeing and not-knowing all the more complex by directing our attention to a moment that is both familiar and highly charged.  In her work, the ordinary and elemental become extraordinary and highly charged. In Reflections (75” x 21” x 21”, oil painted resins, 1985), a woman who has just stepped out of the shower is tying a bath towel around her hair. Her hands are above her head, which is tilted back, her eyes are closed, her back is arched, and droplets of water cascade down her skin. She is immersed in a reflective state of intense ecstasy. 

Water droplets are also prominent in Inner Tube (17” x 32” x 15”, oil painted resins, 1984), Sunburn (38” x 17” x 13”, oil painted resins, 1984), Snorkel (29” x 25” x 11.5”. oil painted vinyl, 1994), Lady Neptune (46” x 28” x 38”, oil painted resin, 1997) and Next Summer (39” x 54” x 50”, oil painted resins, 2012). 

In the most recent sculpture of this thematically linked group, a young woman is lying on her stomach on a shiny blue, inner tube. She is wearing a bright red bathing cap and a black-and white, zebra-patterned, two-piece bathing suit, and resting on her elbows. Her eyes are closed and it is clear that from her smile that she is looking inward, remembering or daydreaming. 
It seems to me that the reflective state that suffuses through this and other of Feuerman’s women evokes both their independence and inner strength – they inhabit a world that the viewer is not privy to. The sensuality of the moment is enhanced by the sheen of the inner tube, the droplets of water clinging to the surface of her skin and her smile. Feuerman’s works exude sensuality, which distinguishes them from those made by largely male peers.

In Miniature Balance (18” x16” x 9”, bronze and gold leaf, 2013), a woman, who is sitting in a lotus position, wears a shiny gold-colored bathing cap and gold-colored two-piece bathing suit. Commonly used in meditative practices, the lotus position said to help the individual breathe properly as well as maintain physical stability.  Athletic and fit, and seemingly just having finished swimming, the woman in Miniature Balance is completely at ease in her skin. In this work, which is full of evocative contradictions, Feuerman synthesizes sensuality and austerity, athleticism and mental deliberation. Time has been slowed down. 

One of the remarkable things about Miniature Balance is its scale, which is rather small. And yet, it feels life-size, not because of the subject, but because of Feuerman’s mastery of her materials, which, in this case includes resin and gold leaf. The combination of a modern material (resin) with an ancient technique (gold leaf) is at once unlikely and, as the sculpture makes evident, absolutely necessary. One can imagine Miniature Balance being life-size. At the same time, one could see it placed in a room with a similarly sized statue of the Hindu figure of Shakti, a cosmic force dependent on no one. I think this imagined juxtaposition suggests what might have been one of Feuerman’s intentions – to envision a fully independent woman. 

Like all of Feuerman’s women, Miniature Balance both literally and figuratively inhabits a world of her own making, one in which men are conspicuously absent. One could go so far as to say that Feuereman’s independence is embodied in many of the subjects of her sculptures. This is another area where she breaks with historical tradition, as well as moves in a direction that very different from the one taken by her peers. 

Beginning with Rodin, figurative sculpture has been associated with public statements. This is certainly true of the sculptures of George Segal and Duane Hanson. In her work, Feuerman embarked on a different trajectory, toward what can be called a private moment. Her sculptures are often of athletically fit women who have temporarily withdrawn from the world and possibly the limelight. We see and we don’t see them. Almost as a rebuke to Minimalism and Pop Art – we see that not everything is on the surface of Feuerman’s women, even as she is incredibly attentive to every square inch of her work. 

Made of clear resin, the water drops endow Feuerman’s women with a visceral sensuality, as well as convey that they have just stepped out of one world and into another. One’s attention shifts between the body and the skin, the visual and the tactile. By introducing tactility into her subject matter, Feuerman enlarges the realm of experience associated with realist sculpture. They surpass the visual. In addition, the non-hierarchical relationship between the visual and tactile is one of Feuerman’s original contributions to figurative sculpture.

Feuerman’s women are the most recent descendants of Botticelli’s painting, The Birth of Venus (1486).  In counterpoint to Venus’s modesty, these women, with the exception of the one titled Sunburn, savor their own bodies. At home in their skin, their erotic joy is both palpable and private. However much viewers may wish to peer or pry – to learn what they are thinking – the world they inhabit excludes us.

The ancient Greeks believed that the eyes were doorways to the soul. Many of the women either have their eyes closed or they are looking inward.  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. However, while this voyeurism is one of the deepest currents in western art, male artists have largely defined it. One thinks of Degas’ dancers, Bonnard’s women reclining in the bathtub, Balthus’ young women standing or sitting alone in a room.

Many of Feuerman’s women are isolated figures entering a state of ecstasy. In doing so, they connect their inner world of memory and intense feelings with the outer world of the senses. In Reflections, we see a woman luxuriating in a state of elemental bliss; she is at home inside her body. This union is, of course, an ideal that is advocated by philosophies practiced in both the East and West. It is a state integral to meditation, for example, which is why Miniature Balance is central to this artist’s remarkable oeuvre. What distinguishes the states of ecstasy the viewer encounters in Feuerman’s sculptures is the conjunction of subject matter and circumstance. A woman has just finished showering; another rests on an inner tube, her eyes closed. Feuerman links ecstasy’s transcendent state with familiar circumstances, which suggests that anyone can achieve this condition.

As the late David Bourdon wrote, “Feuerman’s technical proficiency is formidable.” What makes it all the more powerful is that everything she does is in service of the figure; all her attention is devoted to achieving verisimilitude. The works are mirrors, but, like the mirror one encounters in fairytales and myths, they reveal a deeper truth about us. 

In challenging viewers to recognize their own potential for bliss and ecstasy, Feuerman’s sculptures go against the grain of much postwar art, its strong emphasis on irony, alienation, despair, and pure opticality. She isn’t an expressionist and she does not distort her figures. In these anti-humanist, postmodern times, her sensual, self-satisfied figures become both more of an anomaly and, as I see it, even more necessary.  Feuerman’s women offer a stunning counterpoint to those who believe all experience has been emptied of meaning. As her work makes abundantly evident, we don’t all live in the simulacrum, the world of the Matrix.

To Your Health and Good Fortune (46” x 28” x 38”, oil pained resin, 1992) is a sculpture of a woman seated on a padded bench. Dressed in a red sweater, black skirt, dark nylons and high heels, she is lifting her glass and glancing down. In contrast to Reflections and Inner Tube, where the figure is essentially alone, this woman is acknowledging someone else. It is a social situation that is simultaneously complete and incomplete. Who is she toasting? And what is she thinking? It is impossible to tell whether or not the inner and outer worlds are connected or disconnected.

An astute observer of our public and private gestures, Feuerman has made a sculpture that does not culminate in a punch line. This is what further distinguishes her work from the largely resigned faces of Duane Hanson’s dour figures. She isn’t trying to fool the viewer into thinking the figures are real. Her work inhabits time, as well as recognizes that time is passing. Because we cannot ever know the story the woman in the red sweater inhabits, we must complete a narrative that defers closure. Is the figure she is toasting diminutive? The angle of her glance suggests this as a possibility. And yet, might not this view of her just be a projection on our part? Perhaps she is alone and toasting no one.  That Feuerman can include such radically incommensurable narratives in a single piece is a testament to the clarity of her vision. 

In an age where eroticism of any kind is regarded as a threat, Feuerman challenges us to rethink the way we understand our own physical bodies. Can we become sensual, self-satisfied beings in touch with the elements, with water, sun, earth and air? Can we become sensualists and thinkers? Can mind and body be brought together?  Or must we leave one or the other behind?