New YorkThe Bronx Museum of the Arts
November 7, 2018 —March 3, 2019
What can an abstract painting represent? Rochelle Feinstein offers a plenitude of answers. Image of an Image is the most challenging retrospective that I have recently had the pleasure of viewing. At first blush, this collection of works seems like a group show of diverse artists. Feinstein’s In Anticipation of Women’s History Month (2013)—made with acrylic, oil, black cobalt glass, and buttons on canvas—is an abstraction, a color field painting gone bad. And Plein Air 1 (2018) is made from a gray drop cloth; just as 19th-century artists ordered paint tubes, so she made this painting with materials purchased online. Other paintings are made from untraditional materials: Fulfillment House (2017) is a loosely painted yellow, black, and grey grid, a redoing of that familiar modernist motif. Mr. Natural (2009) depicts two green crossed lines made of crystal, reflective glass powder, oil, and charcoal on drop cloth. And Nude Model (2009), which looks completely abstract, is constructed from Styrofoam, enamel, cloth, and paper mounted on a stretcher. Responding to the printout of a Craigslist post that read, “Nude Model needed for abstract painting,” Feinstein shows that an “abstract nude” can only be an oxymoron.
Like many artists who matured in the 1980s after the formalist vision of abstraction had become passé, Feinstein wanted to give her paintings political resonance, and so her abstract works also refer to contemporary culture in the manner of traditional figurative paintings. That, too, may seem a contradiction in terms, but she brilliantly resolves this by incorporating descriptive materials into her abstractions, and then uses their titles to secure their references. Image of an Image (2010), the titular work of her current exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (which comes to the Bronx after a tour of art centers in Geneva, Munich, and Hannover), is a painting hidden behind a scrim. It might stand for all of her art, in which she brackets and visually conceals her subjects. Perhaps in reaction to her early career as an illustrator, Feinstein proceeds through indirection. In Anticipation of Women’s History Month, for example,was inspired by sad humor with the fact “that the other eleven months of the year are not also an occasion to ‘celebrate’ feminism.”
Feinstein’s art, which looks unfinished and determinedly provisional, consists of what appear to be fragments of modernist compositions—often just barely held together by grids, by color, or by words. She loves incompleteness and imperfection. Her work, which is not easy to place, is consistently off-kilter and offhand. Feinstein makes Robert Rauschenberg—one of her obvious influences—look like Rembrandt through her determined pursuit of incompleteness. And compared to her, Mary Heilmann is a straightforward visual thinker. In her refusal to reduce her ambitious work to a singular narrative, she wants to open abstract art to encompass almost any subject. Her art escapes all definitions, for no sooner have you pinned her down, than you find that her next work offers fresh puzzles.
Ultimately what I admire most about Feinstein is this refusal of resolution and her serious cultivation of slight visual pleasures. Look, if you will, at Love Is Over (2008), which consists of two panels, each made of mirrors on masonite board and acrylic, with those three words laid out—in reverse on the lower panel—and resting on Styrofoam bricks. And consider El Bronco (1994), which consists of oil, acrylic, tape on linen, and a framed digital print. Skid marks are formed by the words “WHITE BRONCO,” an allusion to the O. J. Simpson police chase, as seen in black and white on TV. Or view (should I say, read?) The Little Engine (2005–08/2016). Alluding to the well-known children’s book, it is an ironic parable about colonialism, gender, and race, as well as the embattled legacy of modernism. Composed of two engraved aluminum plaques and three canvases, it features quotations from South African painter and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa. Brilliantly and continuously elusive, she extends the range of painting in seemingly illogical ways. In her art, one commentator in the exhibition catalogue says, we experience “the shipwreck of the premises of abstraction and modernism.” Fortunately what remains is more than enough to make possible her body of enchanting, deeply mysterious paintings.