A modern woman in erotic repose. A pair of dancing satyrs. A black 17th-century coach. An avenging angel from the Renaissance. Such are the subjects taken up by the New York artist Rachel Feinstein in her recent exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery, Apr. 24-May 23, 2008. Feinsteinís manifold themes are matched by her embrace of a range of sensuous materials: finished wood, copper, cement, polyester, resin.
This polymorphism is balanced by a singular pursuit of feeling, a memory of unanchored beauty and timeless fantasy. History and romance are presented, in Feinsteinís sculpture, in two-dimensions, like a shadow of reality cast upon the wall of a cave. Itís as if to say that meaning is a flattened-out puzzle that is only given body in our immediate present. This arch tension between form and fable is what gives her work its mysterious allegorical appeal.
Feinstein lives in Manhattan with her husband, John Currin -- "the best painter in the world, everyone knows that," she says -- and their two children. The following interview was conducted at Feinsteinís studio in SoHo on May 16, 2008.
Mary Barone: How do you begin a piece?
Rachel Feinstein: I start with a drawing. I begin simply, with something I like. For example in Alice, the sculpture of a woman with a hand to her breast -- itís an image from 1970s pornography -- Iíll sketch it out on paper and then cut out the drawing and take the pieces and figure out how to attach the parts. For the next stage, to work it out in scale, itís cheaper and faster to use this thin sheet-wood material called luon. As the work proceeds it gets these big, ugly joints, but at the finishing stage we do everything with miter cuts.
The Alice sculpture is made out of plywood only. We didnít use screws; we just glued it together. Weíre looking into presses that can shape and curve the wood, like that Carlo Mollino-style curved plywood effect. Puritanís Delight, the black enamel sculpture of a carriage with a broken wheel, has a lot of bends, and we primarily used thin sheets of plywood about 1/8th-inch thick and laminated them.
MB: Your process makes me think of puzzles, the way the image is flat and cut into pieces -- your work has that playful element.
RF: Which is funny because Iím terrible at puzzles. I wasnít good at math growing up, but always painted and made drawings and loved sculpture because I could work with pliable materials like clay and plaster. In the last few years Iíve started using power tools and thatís something I like. †
MB: Are you going to cast some of these works in metal? I gather that someoneís interested in possibly commissioning Satyrs in bronze.
RF: Weíre also talking about doing Puritanís Delight in aluminum. We want to wax it to give it a surface similar to that of a Tony Smith sculpture, because I want the painted aluminum to have the same beautiful texture as stained wood. Puritanís Delight was French-polished to give it depth of finish.
MB: But some of the materials in Satyrs have a soft, squishy, almost pornographic quality. How will you translate that into bronze?
RF: The curved, cascading form draped over the leg of the satyr on the left is made out of nylon, stuffed sausage-like with pillow foam, and when you look at it from the back the ends of the nylon have been pulled tightly together, creating the shape of a puckered anus. And the beautiful aqua resin was sanded for days to become this smooth, tactile, almost fleshy surface. I was thinking of doing it in alabaster as a better solution.
MB: A lot of your early sculpture makes reference to your childhood in Miami. Is that the case with the new work?
RF: Basically I think you get all of your ideas when youíre young, as a child, and then later you start to get a sense of how to make those ideas happen, and as you get older you learn to make those ideas happen with more clarity and better execution.
I have to give credit to my parents for a lot of making me who I am. Though they read as very traditional -- my dadís a doctor, my momís a nurse -- they never went with the usual beat. My mother has six giant macaw parrots that fly loose around the house, and I grew up with lots of other animals, including ferrets and wild dogs. It was weird!
My parents think theyíre completely normal, but I learned from them to think outside the box.
Plus, thereís Florida. I grew up in Miami and was a teenager in the late 1980s when Miami was in Scarface mode. Iíd go out to clubs -- there was one nightclub in South Beach called Club Nu -- and it was always an incredible scene. There was a guy who would wear that weird Latin American costume from Scarface. And there was an enormous-breasted bottle blonde who would come out topless in red pasties with the smallest man in the world on her shoulder -- he was in the Guiness Book of World Records as the smallest man in the world -- and she would dance around with him on her shoulder and then sheíd put him down on a table and a spotlight would come down on him and he would moonwalk and speak in this voice that sounded like a little rat talking. He was Marlon Brandoís sidekick in that movie The Island of Dr. Moreau. And then there was this guy who would wear a saddle on his back like a horse and people would ride him around the club. It was trippy.
I mean, we had live monkeys living in our trees. Our neighbors were from Venezuela and they had monkeys that got loose and lived in the trees on the block. There were giant iguanas and my sister had a horse that she used to keep in our backyard until she got in trouble with the county and had to move it to a stable. And then there were the alligators.
We had an alligator living in a lake behind a house in the neighborhood and all the dogs and cats started disappearing. Weíd go swimming in this lake and then someone realized that an alligator might be living in there, so they called animal rescue. This guy in a cowboy hat rides up in a pickup and gets out with a big frozen turkey with a rope attached to it and a hook inside. He ties the rope to a tree and says heíll be back in a week.
We wait for the week to go by and the cowboy shows up and goes to the lake and pulls out this seven-foot-long alligator on the rope. Itís moving around, stuck on the hook, so he ties its mouth shut with tape. We ask him what heís going to do with it and he says, "gonna make me a pair of boots out of it," and puts it on the truck and drives away.
So, being able to come up with strange concepts and just decide to make them wasnít really a difficult thing for me. I had this surreal, fairy tale of a life. I almost feel sad that my kids donít have this same sort of experience.
MB: And you think all of this feeds into your artwork?
RF: Definitely. Itís a peculiar combination of opulence and decadence. Youíre living for the moment so intensely with all of these weird things happening to you and at the same time itís creepy and it makes you think of death. Itís like a Dutch still-life painting. You have the dead lobsters, the big chalices, the fresh lemons and itís a symbol of the best of life and a vanitas, too, with the painter saying, "I made this painting but where am I now?"
This feeling all the time that every moment that passes is closer to your death -- very Edgar Allen Poe, that kind of spookiness -- and Miami really has that quality to it, like the whole earth can just rise up and take you down. Itís not New England in any way, itís not puritanical, itís very voodoo and sexy.
MB: So I wanted to ask you what kind of connection you see between a work like Alice, which is as you say based on pornography, and some of the more historical images like Puritanís Delight or Army of God. Your work seems to unite different subjects.
RF: Definitely. You look at photographs of Constantin Brancusiís studio and the immense variety of things he had there, and you donít want to have everything looking the same. So the textures and forms have to be relevant but they also have to be separate entities. I like to have different themes from different times come together.
For instance, Alice for me has a mod feel, like a 1960s period feel, because first of all it is from that period -- the image came from pornographic sources that John uses, Danish porn from the Ď60s and Ď70s -- and then because the shapes suggest a kind of Eero Saarinen sense of design, and thatís why I stained the wood, to give it a kind of period Danish quality. And itís sitting on a base of a smoked, mirrored laminate, which is very mod.
This is the opposite of the sheet copper in Army of God, the big wall sculpture that is based on an early Renaissance painting of an archangel, which is shiny and really thin and not super-put-together. Itís held up off the wall by a haphazard-looking framework of pine. All of the pieces are raw, it has no beveled cuts, and I did that to make it look like it was a scaffold that was put up really fast, even though it wasnít.
I do like working from different periods of history. Army of God is an image from the 13th century and the angels in Sarcophagus are taken from the Baroque period. The sources are from all over the place but theyíre all definitely Western.
MB: Can you tell us more about the inspiration for that piece?
RF: I was a religion major at Columbia University. My fatherís Jewish and my momís Catholic and Iíve always taken an interest in the violent, decadent side of religion. Iíve always thought the idea of St. Michael being the field commander for Godís army, the Army of God, was fascinating. That God had an army, that heíd actually have angels fighting and killing demons is fascinating to me. Itís the image of a winged angel, but one with a sword. The swords are always pointing down, to give challenge to the hell that lies below them.
I like the way that in Army of God, the image of the angel is also confused within the copper. Itís like that with those porcelain religious images, too, where they make Jesus Christ on the cross with blood, but heís made out of beautiful glossy porcelain, and it captures a certain strangeness, using this decadent material to express this supposedly austere religious image. †
MB: You have a new book coming out?
RF: Yes, it covers 10 years of my work, laid out chronologically. We managed to get some of the new sculptures in there, thereís a plate of Puritanís Delight, but we didnít have time to include reproductions of a public commission I did in Korea this past fall called Cuatro -- Don Quixote -- which I am really excited about.
It is part of the "Anyang Public Art Project" in Anyang, a satellite city an hour south of Seoul. The city is super modern and it has a lot of public art -- work by Dan Graham, Angela Bullock, Liam Gillick, Daniel Buren, Lawrence Weiner, Kusama and a bunch of other artists. Some of it is commissioned and some of the work is temporary. My work is made of steel, and it was gilded in the same way that they gild the statues of Buddha.
It all started with a small sculpture I was making for a friend’s son, who was turning four. Heís half Mexican, so I wanted to make a Don Quixote, though I based it on a work by Tillman Riemanschneider, which was definitely not Don Quixote! But when they asked me to do a sculpture for Anyang I thought about this cobbled together equestrian sculpture, because the city doesnít have any equestrian sculpture -- it hardly has its own history, much less a European history.
I loved the idea of this cobbled together gold equestrian figure in Anyang -- this idea of the future, heís not the past but the future of Korea. Instead of symbolizing the greatness of the 18th century, this is the greatness of 2008. And I sent them a picture of a European plinth and asked them to fabricate one like it for the sculpture and they placed the whole thing smack dab on a busy downtown road divider. Itís six meters high -- you canít miss it.
A comprehensive survey of Rachel Feinsteinís work from 1998 to 2008, with a forward by James Frey and an interview by Sophia Coppola, is soon to be released by tarSIZ books. For more info, see www.tar-art.com.
MARY BARONE takes photographs for "Out with Mary" in Artnet Magazine.