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Back to Reviews 96

Rochelle Feinstein
S'Wonderful, 1994 

Rochelle Feinstein
Wonderful View, 1995

Rochelle Feinstein
A Wonderful Place 
to Live, 1994, 

Cicely Cottingham
True Blue (Rent), 1995 

Denise Mullen
Manos de Piedra

Denise Mullen
Manos de Piedra

rochelle feinstein, 
cicely cottingham 
and denise mullen 
at the jersey city museum 
by John Mendelsohn

Of the three solo shows running 

concurrently at the Jersey City Museum, 

Rochelle Feinstein's extends the furthest, 

both in time and in ambition. "The 

Wonderfuls" are 15 distinctly different 

paintings from the past six years that 

share a common format, a 33-inch square, 

and a common structure, the grid. The word 

"wonderful" appears in each title, 

beginning with the first painting, It's a 

Wonderful Life. Here a scumbled matrix of 

red and green allows only a vestige of 

quilted order to remain in the welter of 

streaked paint. Its mordant humor and 

critique of holiday propaganda sets the 

tone for the whole series to come.

These are paintings that want it all: to 

simultaneously function as abstraction and 

representation, social commentary and 

sensate experience. Their ability to 

compromise these categories makes painting 

a kind of public speech, endowed with the 

capacity to challenge, slyly or 

forthrightly, the rhetoric of cultural 

images. That rhetoric is embodied in the 

titles, ranging from Mr. Wonderful (a 

Stella labyrinth of washy rainbow colors), 

to Having a Wonderful Time (a skittering 

Klee-like "city" of wiry black lines on a 

field of white), to Wonderful Vacation (a 

slatted Rorschach spill, half blue, half 


Each "Wonderful" makes more apparent the 

word's appeal to a spirit of desperate 

optimism in America's "opportunity 


The esthetic correlative to "wonderful" is 

the grid, in Feinstein's words "a code of 

coherence," with its infinite replication 

of rational order. Undergoing all manner of 

deformation, the grid in these paintings is 

never completely lost, never completely 

triumphant. In Wonderful News the grid is a 

sliding, dripping field of red, white and 

black patches melting into bruised purples. 

In S'Wonderful gridded, xeroxed color 

charts march around two margins of the 

canvas, leaving an expanse filled with a 

spectrum of watercolor stripes. Small 

ladders of drawn squares travel from one 

domain to the next. In A Wonderful Place to 

Live, one of the strongest pieces, black 

xerox strips with "Rochelle, IL 60168" in 

white form eleven square, wobbly cells on 

the raw linen.

Abstraction is both form and content in 

these paintings, but in a way that regards 

it not as the subject, but as one of the 

many subjects that a painting can hold at 

once. So while these paintings share the 

look of various abstract styles, the spin 

provided by language and dark humor gives 

abstraction a cagey, vernacular inflection.

These paintings are mostly intimate, with 

the sense that we are witnessing a process 

that is personal, informal and largely 

mysterious. A few of the images have a 

grand declamatory presence, like the yellow 

Venetian blinds of Wonderful Vision or the 

white St. Andrew's cross on fluorescent orange 

of Wonderful Light. The final painting of 

the group, Wonderful Country brings 

together both tendencies, with its puzzle 

squares of curdled pastels revealing a 

lower level of colored newspaper food ads, 

varnished to a high sheen.

Cicely Cottingham's "True Blue" series are 

paintings in a hypnagogic, poetic mode. 

While highly personal, they adhere to a 

tradition of the psyche as esthetic muse 

that runs from the pre-Raphaelites and 

Symbolists to the Neo-Expressionists. This 

is fictive art which asks only complete 


In each painting, four plywood panels form 

a vertical grid. The loosely painted, 

layered images both react to and transcend 

this ruling structure. The images 

themselves are a shifting, often dream-

bound vocabulary of figures and objects, 

abstracted into schematic gestures. Usually 

dominated by shimmering greens and blues, 

they convey a sense of an inner life 

submerged in a watery, vegetative state. 

The striated, scumbled, scratched-into 

paint takes on a mediumistic function, as 

the "voice" of the cryptic images.

Individual paintings are dominated by 

various motifs, which then recur in other 

compositions, abstracted and 

recontextualized. In Song it is the figures 

embracing across the painting's center 

spine. In House it is a peaked-roof 

structure divided into four "rooms". In 

Rent it is two figures divided across a 

charged space. There is an equality among 

images in Key, with the four quadrants of 

the panels keeping a tipping boat, a jar 

and two calligraphic figures in a kind of 

unstable equilibrium. The single undulating 

female nude in Inn makes explicit the 

erotic undercurrent running through the 

whole series.

A series of highly worked abstract pencil 

drawings accompany the paintings.

Denise Mullen's books combine photography 

and traditional bookbinding techniques. The 

accordion-format books, which range from 

three to five or six pages, have moody 

black and white photographs of a variety of 

locations in Hawaii, Italy and Spain. While 

there are photographs of unpeopled 

interiors and church facades, most are of 

pristine, rather mysterious landscapes. All 

have a 19th-century feel to them. The 

books' leather covers are embossed with 

motifs drawn from the various locations. 

The total effect is that of a particularly 

luxurious cache of Victorian travel 


Rochelle Feinstein, "The Wonderfuls," Sept. 

11-Nov. 2, 1996.

Cicely Cottingham, "Paintings From True 

Blue," Sept. 11-Nov. 16, 1996.

Denise Mullen, "Book Structures," Sept. 11-

Nov. 16, 1996.

September 11-November 16

The Jersey City Museum, 472 Jersey Ave., 

Jersey City, N.J. (201) 547-4514

JOHN MENDELSOHN is a New York artist 

who occasionally writes on art.