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Bella Feldman: 50-Years @ Richmond Art Center

Meridian, 1997, patinated steel, 60 x 38 x 18" 

Bella Feldman is a remarkable and prolific artist whose long career has largely been spent as a sculptor of evocative objects.  Her current show at the Richmond Art Center—a packed and rambling survey of nearly 100 works created since the early 1970s—leads the viewer on a journey through the artist’s life, politics, extensive travels and artistic concerns.  While the breadth of Feldman’s technical and thematic explorations are impressive, and alternately inspire a sense of delight, fascination, and dread, my initial experience of her show was one of being visually overwhelmed, as the choice to present a comprehensive survey of her oeuvre is compromised by the limited space of RAC’s galleries.  The Center’s Main Gallery — packed with floor- and pedestal-based sculpture, and topped with wall-mounted two- and three-dimensional works — was reminiscent of a curiosity shop.  Yet, despite the seeming lack of curatorial selection that would allow Feldman’s work to breathe, her show can also be considered a Wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders), in which close consideration of individual works encourages comparisons and consistently inspires a sense of admiration and deserved contemplation.

 
One of the most significant qualities in this show is its pervasive duality, beginning with Feldman’s choice to use her first name as part of the show’s title.  In Latin and Italian, “bella” means beautiful.  Yet the literal translation of “bella” in Latin (plural of “bellum”) is also “wars.”  Whether or not this double entendre was intentional, the titular reference aptly describes the visual presence of many of Feldman’s works, as well as their thematic underpinnings.  In one sense, this is exemplified by the sensuous glass and steel pieces in her Flasks of Fiction series (1998-2002), inspired by lanterns found in Turkish mosques.  Rounded, sometimes bulbous, and constrained by their steel girdles of varying designs, these wall-hung sculptures are simultaneously elegant and seductive.  For example, Trident (2002) evokes a girdled female pelvis, while
 
War Toys: Leader and Daisy Cutter, 2003, steel and glass, 13 x 24 x 12"
 
Artemisia (2002) looks like tightly constrained male genitalia.  The latter piece has the added tension of historical reference to Artemisia Gentileschi, who was punished for her purported adolescent affair with a mature male painter, as well as the physical suggestion of Louise Bourgeois’ Filette, a latex over plaster sculpture of a phallus, which Bourgeois was photographed holding under her arm like a football.  Feldman’s Flasks of Fiction communicate her intended combination of vulnerability and constraint through formal means, encouraging the viewer to complete the stories they suggest.
 
While the show includes work that exemplifies the range of inspirations that have informed Feldman’s work in all media—especially machinery and tools—the most pervasive theme in her work has been war, the other major “bella” reference.  While this is clearly evident from the inclusion of almost three dozen sculptures from her War Toys series—an inventive body of work which she began in the late 1980s, and continues to work on to the present day, it actually materialized in the inceptive stages of her career. 

Trident, from Flasks of Fiction Series, 1998-2001, 37 x 18 x 13"

The earliest example in this show is Feldman’s Rat Sequence (1972-74), which emerged from teaching for two years in Uganda. The experience motivated her to cast rats as a metaphor for men, and aluminum shavings as a metaphor for human struggle, evolution, genetic scientific testing, and the effects of nuclear war.  This was followed by her Membrane Series from the late 1970s, an alternately whimsical or threatening group of anthropomorphic fiberglass sculptures that were created during the Cold War, when Feldman shared the collective apprehension about nuclear warfare.  During the later 1980s Feldman created a number of zinc-plated steel and graphite sculptures—Excedra, Bullfinches Chariot, and The Edge of Reason (1987-89) — that visually allude to ancient Roman chariots and combat apparatus.

The additional inclusion of pieces created over the past three years from her recent series RPM (2010-11) and Out of Order (2012-13), as well five recent paintings (2010-13) reveal her ongoing fascination (or self-described “love-hate relationship”) with machines.  While the paintings and RPM works reveal a strong alliance with Constructivist aesthetics, her Out of Order sculptures—comprised of layers of glass engraved and juxtaposed with metal cogs and other machine parts—suggest strong conceptual alliances with the machine aesthetic and unrealized potential inherent in Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1923).  These new works demonstrate both the consistency of Feldman’s vision, as well as her ongoing commitment to experimentation.

Bullfinch's Chariot, zinc over steel, 44 x 50 x 15"

Feldman’s show is truly “Bella,” but there is too much work; the galleries are crowded and each series could be represented by fewer examples.  The Minimalist tenet, “less is more,” is particularly germane to the aesthetic that guides Feldman’s artistic expression.  The monumental sculptures from her Reach (2007) and Larger War Toys (1987-2011) series are powerful, and the exhibition would benefit from spacious placement of these, complemented by a more judicious selection of smaller sculptures and paintings.  The development of Bella Feldman’s artistic expression through her 50- year career would be heightened by such a Wunderkammer, deservedly highlighting her exceptional strength of ideas and execution.                                          

-TERRI COHN

“Bella: A 50-year survey of the work of Bella Feldman” @ Richmond Art Center through November 15, 2013.  

About the Author:
Terri Cohn is a writer, curator, art historian, and editor.  Her research and writings focus on conceptual art, technology, public art, and socially-engaged art practices.  A Contributing Editor to Artweek magazine for 20 years, she currently writes for various publications including Public Art Review, Art in America, caa.reviews, and Art Practical.  Terri co-wrote and edited Pairing of Polarities: The Life and Art of Sonya Rapoport (Heyday, 2012), and curated exhibitions of Rapoport’s work for Kala Art Institute and Mills College Art Museum (2011, 2012).  She teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute in the Interdisciplinary Studies department. 
 

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