Fairy Tales and Feminism: Rachel Feinstein at the Jewish Museum
Rachel Feinstein: Mother, Maiden, Crone at The Jewish Museum
November 1, 2019 – March 22, 2020
1109 5th Ave, at 92nd Street
New York City, thejewishmuseum.org
To experience Rachel Feinstein’s survey, “Mother, Maiden, Crone,” at the Jewish Museum through March 22, is to walk through crowds of women and sometimes spot yourself. Feinstein, through her sculptural works, explores dualities and extremes, and the binaries of fantasy versus reality, maximalism versus minimalism, and community versus isolation, all through archetypes feminists have historically been eager to both reclaim and resist.
Much of Feinstein’s work refers to fairy tales targeted at little girls, and at first glance seems like an indictment of those fantastical stories. From menstruating shepherdesses to castles that rape, there is something perverse about all of Feinstein’s works that reference fairy tales. Upon closer inspection, however, this distorted nature demonstrates not fantasies dashed, but nightmarish realities realized. In the case of Sleeping Beauty (the focus of Feinstein’s film Spring and Winter, 1994/96), Feinstein is most interested in the story’s parallels in reality. The original tale of Sleeping Beauty is one of rape at the hands of her rescuer, a fictional account that mirrors real cases of sexual assaults.
Feinstein’s mirror is more than an allusion; reflective surfaces appear throughout her work, further critiquing the idea that fantasy exists outside of reality. In her works of enamel paint on mirror, such as her portraits of elderly women, the viewer is forced to examine their own reflection as they consider the fantasy before them—a fantasy that teeters on the brink of collapse. Feinstein’s elderly women are styled as 18th century grande dames, but the faux expressive paint style is more mid-20th century pulp fiction cover than Fragonard or Gainsborough portrait. Similarly, Feinstein’s costuming of her muses does not disguise their age or emotions, or the viewer’s own projections about women over 50. It’s impossible not to see the women as variations on the ever-familiar crone, from Shakespeare’s witches to Bette Davis’ Baby Jane. Physically, the mirrored negative space of each of these portraits provides a literal reflection of the person viewing the work, and the textural application of paint on mirror links the concept of creative artifice with the act of applying make-up.
Feinstein’s Goldstein (2019), a 40-foot long, monochromatic white wall relief, pairs a similar set of extremes, this time juxtaposing maximalism and minimalism, pleasure and shame. Like Louise Nevelson’s work, which infuses monochromatic wall sculpture with baroque intensity, Feinstein’s Goldstein is a shrine to pleasure, despite its monochromaticity. It depicts the opulence of a lively and tropical landscape – perhaps the drug-fueled, materialistic Miami of the 1980s, where Feinstein grew up. The style is both cartoonish and joyful, almost daring the viewer to feel ashamed at its tawdriness. For Feinstein, her Jewish Museum show is intertwined with the idea of shame – her shame at being a woman, at being Jewish, and her desire to reclaim those identities by displaying them in their most extreme forms. Naming her fresco “Goldstein,” she argues in an interview with Phong Bui in the Brooklyn Rail, is one way of doing this.
Feinstein’s other “room-encompassing work,” as the Jewish Museum describes it, is by definition maximalist and baroque, but also serves to highlight one of Feinstein’s most puritan pieces in contrast. Panorama of Rome (2012) wallpapers the entire second room of Feinstein’s show, reflecting the works within, as well as the viewers themselves. The mural is meant to mimic decorative 19th century wallpapers, and depicts aging Roman ruins alongside shining statues of heroes on horses, contrasting the aging glory of Rome and the mythological figures of that time with vibrant depictions of joyous everyday life. Like Goldstein, the energy of Panorama of Rome is grand and extravagant, reminiscent of a baroque 18th century depiction of a Dionysian feast or marketplace.
In contrast to this revelry, Puritan’s Delight (2008) sits surrounded by the panorama, but is a sobering ode to minimalism and the Puritan message and aesthetic. Puritan’s Delight depicts a monochromatic black, deformed carriage, symbolizing increasing Westward expansion and urbanization taking place in the “New World” in the 19th century. The vehicle’s wheels have come off, and some are warped, bending like a surrealist’s melting clock. Christian crosses jut out from the base of the statue, perhaps commemorating lost passengers. Puritan’s Delight is literally reflected in the mirrors of Panorama of Rome, but the panorama itself also depicts a nearly identical mirror image – another black carriage (this time intact), sits in the Roman plaza.
Like Panorama of Rome, Puritan’s Delight deals in mythology, or, we might say, fantasy. The fact that the passengers of the carriage are absent forces the viewer to construct their own narrative of what occurred, perhaps drawing on nationalistic understandings of American history and the extreme archetypes perpetuated in those tales. Implicit in the broken carriage and the memorial crosses is the myth of Manifest Destiny, and the idea that European settlers who lost their lives taking land from indigenous people were victims, themselves. Puritanism and the act of purification requires the existence first of people, ideas, or objects that are initially dirty, savage, sensual, or corrupt. Thus, the Puritan’s “delight” comes from the tragedy of the carriage disaster, itself, because without such a tragedy, the myth of American nationalism cannot exist. Feinstein’s use of the word “delight” – which calls to mind pleasure over shame – is again a contrast, forcing the viewer to contend with the opposing pieces in the room, sculptures that depict rainbow women in sexually provocative stances, as well as the grand panorama. In this way, Feinstein demonstrates one extreme giving life to another, calling to mind other Puritanical dichotomies like the slut and the innocent, or the witch and the saint.
If the room wallpapered in Panorama of Rome is Feinstein’s depiction of society and the warring ideologies that command conformity, the room that houses Feinstein’s video depicts the alternative: complete isolation. In Spring and Winter, Feinstein plays both a young slumbering seductress and an old woman emerging from hibernation. The connection between these two characters mirrors the link between the slut and the witch, two feminine archetypes that have historically been punished for their nonconformism. Seen through the lens of Spring and Winter, this storied tale takes on another dimension. The punishment of isolation becomes a gift – the freedom to embrace one’s sluttiness or witchiness without prying eyes.
The ovoid room that houses the film Spring and Winters serves as a meditation on isolation and its effect on women and artists, but also as a sort of love nest. Because Feinstein’s video, which deals so powerfully with the theme of isolation, is surrounded by sculptures of couples, it’s impossible not to draw a parallel between the strong influence Feinstein attributes to being alone and her understanding of romance, sex, and partnership. In Alice (2008), two flattened, biomorphic, stained-wood figures engage in sex. The visibly feminine figure, presumably Alice, sits with legs spread, atop her lover. Her face is bent, as if folded in half, creating both a profile and a frontal view. Alice’s hands are carved from negative space, and rather than reaching for her partner, they reach for her own body. Thus, Alice’s pleasure is fleeting – existing only for the viewer who sees her hands in the negative space. Because the sculptures in this room are the only depictions of consensual sex in the show, together they present the idea that romance, and perhaps the heterosexual romance in particular, can only thrive in isolation from, and in resistance to, sexist society.
Feinstein has said, in an interview for Gagosian Quarterly, that she believes in “a world of dualities,” and “Mother, Maiden, Crone” celebrates this universe. But, her show also questions the concept of the binary, embracing the slippery matter within overlapping opposites, and interrogating the ideological polarity within popular feminism that the feminist must choose between reclamation or resistance. Instead, Feinstein’s work manages to view feminine archetypes through the lenses of resistance, reclamation, and acceptance – sometimes simultaneously all within one work.