Swimmers find land in Carole Feuerman's works of hyperrealism
NORTH ADAMS — The glistening skin, the veined hand, the strands of hair escaping her wrinkled swim cap — there are a multitude of reasons why the swimmer in Carole Feuerman's lacquer-on-resin 2013 sculpture, "The Message," looks life-like. But water droplets like the ones affixed to the figure's flushed cheek are perhaps Feuerman's most well-known demonstration of hyperrealism.
"This is a signature thing that I invented," Feuerman said of the water droplets when reached by phone at her New York City studio on Monday.
She has had ample opportunity to employ this tactic; over the last four decades, the artist's sculptures have largely focused on swimmers and water-related figures. An exhibition at The Artist Book Foundation's Louis and Susan Meisel Gallery, "Swimmers: Recent Works by Carole Feuerman," includes "The Message" and other aquatic sculptures, as well as paintings and diamond-dust prints. Running through Sept. 29 (with an artist reception on Thursday night), the show represents the second homage to a pioneer of artistic realism in as many exhibits at the North Adams organization. Opening last February, "Tom Blackwell: Motorcycles and Mannequins" displayed an early photorealist's paintings; "Swimmers" offers works by one of the first hyperrealists in sculpture, a movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and generated a plethora of human replicas.
"Among contemporary postwar sculptors, Feuerman has affinities with John de Andrea, Duane Hanson, Marisol, Mary Frank and George Segal, other figural sculptors who thrived in the face of the challenge to make work that took the human figure as the primary subject," writes critic John Yau in "Swimmers: Carole Feuerman," a monograph that The Artist Book Foundation published in 2014.
Yet, while Feuerman's monumental and smaller works have achieved renown — her pieces have been internationally exhibited and collected, including at institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by private owners, such as Bill and Hillary Clinton — it hasn't been universally embraced.
"There have been curators through the years who have said to me [that] my art is really craft because beauty is not acceptable in the art world," she said.
Swimming's beauty has been apparent to Feuerman since she frequented Long Island's Jones Beach as a child. Those excursions have informed at least one of her work's elements.
"I remember with great detail how the delicate water droplets covered my arms and face after returning from a swim, and the patterns that formed on my skin captivated me," Feuerman writes in "Swimmers." "I noticed how the human figure radiates a healthy glow while in the water and coming out, and how the water seemed to rejuvenate the body while instilling a sense of harmony, both internally and externally."
Others can relate to swimming's powers. Consequently, the artist feels that her sculptures have global appeal.
"Swimmers are a tool," Feuerman said. "The real thing is doing something that resonates [with] people all over the world. Water certainly links us."
When Feuerman started in sculpture, she only created fragments — a hand or a torso, for instance. These pieces still conveyed emotion.
"You didn't even need a face," Feuerman said.
Feuerman portrayed parts of her first swimmers through these works. In the 1990s, she began creating full bodies, she said. These figures have an undeniable sense of interiority.
"Her figures seem capable of thought," Yau writes in "Swimmers." "They evoke an inward life, which invites the viewer's speculation, as well as signals the distance between them and us."
Feuerman says that her swimmers "give off a feeling of ecstasy or thoughtfulness or serenity. Most of the feelings are either survival, serenity, balance, struggling to achieve — those are the themes that have run through my work through all the years."
Positioned toward the back of the gallery, "The Message" (2013) both renders and provokes contemplation. Hand on her hip, a young swimmer is bent over, one foot raised on a rock. An item is in her grasp. Feuerman said that she often picked up random objects on the beach as a child.
"You just have to keep looking for the message that's important in your life," she said.
Closer to the entrance, "Christina" (2018) tells a different story. She is more ecstatic than her gallery counterpart; standing upright and donning a floral one-piece, Christina's head is raised. Her eyes, however, are closed, as if she's being showered in sunlight. Feuerman knows something that the viewer doesn't, though.
"She's a world traveler. Originally, there was a little suitcase by her feet, but then I didn't think it really fit the piece or was necessary," she said of the 19x18x72-inch sculpture.
Wall works surround the two large sculptures, including a series of off-white diamond-dust prints that have never been exhibited before. Their attention still belongs to Feuerman's sculpture work, which has included both men and women over the years. The latter tend to be more coveted.
"My galleries only wanted to show the women pieces. They said they sold better," Feuerman said.
The Clintons are among those who have been taken by Feuerman's depictions.
"I met them many times. To this day, I'm still friendly with Hillary," the artist said.
Bronze works are among Feuerman's most popular.
"I'm probably the only sculptor in the world that can paint bronze so it looks like soft flesh and can paint the fabric so it looks real," she said.
Scrutiny is required with all of Feuerman's pieces.
"You have to look closely at what's before you to see the truth," she said.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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