Taboos of Endearment
by Stephen C.Foster
New London, 2004
Sexual fantasies surely constitute one of culture’s great common grounds. Few dimensions of affective life so saturate our imaginative life from infancy to death. A rich internal theater of spectacular proportions, and the wellspring of countless unspoken and largely unwritten personal epics, sexual fantasies are undeniable, private, universally shared yet publicly denounced as taboos. Shunned by many as infantile, embarrassing and impure, they remain, nevertheless, a source of immense gratification for the majority normal people.
Most of the twenty works in this exhibition (the erotic series were Feuerman’s first of realist sculptures) were initially scheduled for viewing in 1978 at a Fort Worth gallery. Remarkably, the exhibition was cancelled because of its content, after an opening attended only by the artist’s family and gallery janitors. In a state of total disillusionment, Feuerman abandoned these works and turned to more palatable subjects. Ironically (or not), two years later, New York’s Hansen Gallery expressed interest in showing the series. Determined to avoid a similar debacle, Feuerman consented to bring the works to the gallery provided they were not exhibited and be viewed only in the back room. In this surreptitious context, the 1980 event was predictably and enormously successful. Almost all the pieces were sold; nearly a dozen of them to Malcolm Forbes. The present exhibition, after a period of almost thirty years, still represents the first public showing of these objects (a few appeared at the Basel Art Fairs in 1979 and 1986).
The works are deliciously erotic, and that is interesting enough in its own right. They also possess a formal sophistication that secures their life as objects. Concentrating her realism at the center, the works become increasingly abstracted towards the edges. The objects are first and last a question of art; an art conceived as a delivery system committed to bearing and disclosing one inescapable, if unsavory, dimension of our imaginative landscape. A realist to be sure, but tempered by Pop, the works also inhabit a place on the edges of performance and at the gates of environment.
Feuerman’s erotica are equally interesting, however, in terms of the complicated critical issues they raise. Like Pop, with which the works have as much in common as they do with seventies realism, they embrace patterns of behavior as “functions” of a social environment, where there is little place for the concept of the principled universal individual. They totally accept the concept of the social individual and all that implies. Transparently anti-elite and opposed to the privilege of the cultural power bases that typically define and legislate human relations, Feuerman’s works interface with a media minded and popular culture through a language familiar to all; the one in which most people are fluent, and, based on its vast and common use, (arguably) the most complex. The artist is no longer the author of privilege and is replaced by the artist as the articulator of the spoken and visual languages through which the daily transactions of a culture, real or imagined, actually occur.
Feuerman’s work is given force precisely in its embrace of the cultural practices and cultural fictions that provide the bases of our private (and communal) lives. High-level abstractions (our realities) are the means by which we organize our schemes of imagination, be they the comics, the movies, or advertising. Feuerman (and Pop), without glorifying the significance of these fictions (and they are significant), created an artistic and cultural framework through which these fictions are played out and which gave sanction to her spectators’ participation in these fictions
These works propose that the “individual” is distinguishable or individuated precisely through his or her “use” of these fictions (considered by the establishment as a debasement of true art). Feuerman is an artist preoccupied with de-privileging art and erasing art’s presumed superiority to life; an artist engaged in performing art (and life) through the literalization of the object. Although distantly related to Roy Lichtenstein’s icons of a culture’s domesticated aggressions and Tom Wesselmann’s fetishistic renderings of women as constructed sex objects, Feuerman’s works provide a deeply intimate inventory of the affective guidelines for sensual living, as set down and mediated by the thinly disguised underside of the media and popular culture.
Feuerman’s choice of a discourse centers us at the intersection of our culture’s abstractions (fragmentations) of reality and the reality of its abstractions. Richly suggestive in imaginative prompts, the works display, narrativize, situate, transact, and describe. They are the stuff of huge cultural fictions that are left to the spectator to detail and weave to completion. The reception is often unspoken since there is a public, if not private, disjunction between the imagination and the narrative structures (rules or norms) that account for why they are taboos in the first place. The spectator becomes involved not only in the act of criticism but in the management of criticism as well (where and to what it should be applied). The receiver performs these subtle cultural distinctions and brings them to an uneasy place of resolution and irresolution in a case of embrace and resistance. Our fascination with the work consists, in part, in these cognitive anomalies; anomalies, it should be added, that have given spice to our traditions of myth and which represent a persistent sub-text to our otherwise tiresome classicism.
Finally, there is the humorousness of the works; and they are funny. They share with Pop (Segal and Oldenburg come to mind) the recourse to a common, universally available language (common as opposed to rarified and common in the sense of “in common”), a language in which everyone possesses command and fluency. They are to our affective life what Oldenburg’s food fragments are to our consumptive life. Trite, banal, and gripped in melodrama and vulgarity, Feuerman’s objects engage in a highly complex set of cultural behaviors which evokes a correspondingly complex set of imaginative responses. It is this that invites their comparison with Pop for which that was much the point. It is also that which distinguishes Feuerman from the descriptive objectivity of her realist peers, such as Duane Hanson and John De Andrea, for whom recognition and identification are the defining issues.
Feuerman’s are the comforting realities that lay beneath our chilling (official) conceptualizations of sexuality, realities which are sometimes implied in advertising, the movies and sitcoms, and which go by the name “secrets.”