Carole A. Feuerman: Topographies

by Stephen C. Foster



No longer did perception mirror an external world which we believed precisely because we saw it. On the contrary, perception mirrored our innermost values and produced a world which we saw precisely because we believed in it.

It is only recently that the artworld has come to terms with the vitality and radius of realism. Competing on a totally equal footing with a variety of legacies from the sixties, seventies and eighties, no label attached to recent art has descended through, and saturated culture so much as “realism.” For decades, there has been no need, and no attempt made, to defend realism as a dichotomy to “abstraction.” Moving freely between, and participating in what would have formerly been perceived as mutually exclusive paradigms, realism from the seventies to the present has been as soundly secured in theory as any other developments. As in the case of artists such as Alfred Leslie, realism became a viable option for an artist practicing in any genre. The artist is free to move from abstraction to realism (the differences are less great than we thought) and from realism to abstraction.

In spite of the prominence of realism in recent decades, it is also true that realism (I am thinking particularly of the figure here) has been bound to theories of perception that have concentrated on the problems of “object perception;” a school of thinking that coincided neatly with American post WWII obsessions with the objecthood of art. As William Ittelson would have it, “as a result, the investigation of perception has lost its essential esthetic unity without which any pursuit leads to chaos rather than resolution.” The present exhibition, including thirty of Feuerman’s works dating from 1978 to 2004, discloses a series of reflections on the nature of realism that signal significant departures from its historical orthodoxies and philosophical assumptions.

It is in changing the course of this “kind” of historical realism that Carole Feuerman’s work, in electing for neither one nor the other, represents a fascinating development in its clarification and analysis of the mutual dependency of realism and abstraction. More precisely, her work represents their peaceful co-existence, even within a single piece, where there is no violation of one by the other. Both can be folded into the concept of realism or into the concept of abstraction. The distinction ceases to carry much meaning. Her work moves into areas that expand the concepts of realism at the same time they shrink the conventions of realism.

Descending from the legacy of pop and hyper-realism (she was one of the major sculptors of this stripe in the seventies and eighties along with Duane Hanson and John De Andrea), one witnesses the renewal of realism in a profoundly “new key;” what the artist describes as a topographic realism and as a ‘’mapping” of the figure. The terms are more than analogies and represent both the results of natural process and a distanced conceptualization of that process.

Although true of the works from the late seventies through much of the nineties, the significance of Feuerman’s sculpture increasingly emerged in its redefinition of the concept of the environment where the sculpture becomes the interface between the organism and the environment – the natural environment and the social environment, and the tension that exists between the two. No longer separate entities, and to that degree a departure from realism as conventionally understood, the figure came to be understood as the continuous response to the environment and the environment a response to the figure (or acting agent). Each is incomprehensible without the other.

…one cannot be the subject of an environment; one can only be a participant. The very distinction between self and non-self breaks down; the environment surrounds, enfolds, engulfs, and no thing and no one can be isolated and identified as standing outside of, and apart from it.

Feuerman’s is a vein of realism so far untapped; a significant intersection of classical allusions, unforgiving realism and eloquently silent objectivity. What we see is a common ground of abstractions (all of our realities are abstractions) achieved between works such as Shower, Venus in Lace, The World on 9/11 and Delphi; a confluence of realisms (if we understand the process of environment as our realities) that render “classicism,” “realism,” and non-objectivity” as incidental and merely exhibited properties of the works.

With no loss to the concept of realism, there is, nevertheless, a re-location of coordinates in the world from which the concept is perceived; from the outside (as observer) to the inside (as actor). This is what Ittelson meant when he referred, in the headnote to this introduction, to “a world which we saw precisely because we believed in it.” The conceptualization of realism and the process of realism, always in a delicate state of balance, move discernibly from the former (Shower) to the latter (The World on 9/11).

Varieties of realism, that is, are not merely different levels of commitment to orthodox “realism,” but artistic and cultural concepts of realism (not so simple as it sounds) and all they imply.It is a sign of authentic significance when an artist reshapes our understanding of concepts as fundamental to art as “realism.” At this point, one is moved more into the domain of aesthetics than art; more into the defining attributes of art than the object qualities of art. In looking at Feuerman’s work, what stands out are its continuities, and it is the dimensions of those continuities that assure her a primary place in the contemporary artworld.

These considerations, it seems to me, are the basic propositions that subtend the pointed and specific remarks contained in the essays of Donald Kuspit and John Yau; insightful navigations of Feuerman’s universe that confirm our pertinence to experience and the experience of our pertinence.

The way one views the environment thus is, in a very general sense, a function of what one does in it, including what strategies are used in exploring and conceptualizing it.


The quotations in this essay are drawn from William H. Ittelson, “Environment Perception and Contemporary Perceptual Theory,” in Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences (1970).