Some golden moments in Rachel Feferman retrospective - Published in Seattle Times, October 31, 2014
A small, handmade white apron hangs at the entrance to the Rachel Feferman retrospective “A Hole in the Heart” at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA). Around the corner is a large pencil drawing of that same apron, barely recognizable. The image (#40) depicts what seems to be a forest floor at the last moment before day turns into night, and in the central gloom we can make out the apron – crushed, twisted, and about to be enveloped by the black. The drawing is extremely worked – that is to say, obsessive. The artist has made thousands of tiny black marks in a process like needlepoint, creating the strong sensation of light being sucked away, along with the apron, into the void.
The show highlights the challenges artists face when taking on the Mt. Everest of pictorial difficulty, artwork whose theme is rape, violence, oppression, or genocide – all are here. For this viewer the earlier pieces – smaller scale works, some of which are in an “adults only” section – too often come off as overly literal (soldiers with knives raping bleeding nude women), the artistic equivalent of being shouted at. The “Golden Hands” series, by contrast, represents a radical, late-career strategy shift by the artist, in which she uses symbols, mood, and juxtapositions to make her points, with the figure (central to the earlier work) almost entirely absent, or reduced to a highly-stylized outline.
A good example of this approach is hung next to the apron. Another large pencil drawing (#26), this features a meditative portrait of Grandmother, standing in front of a forest. The apron hangs amidst the trees, and it takes us a moment (which is why it works) to realize that here the rough ground is covered not with vegetation but with bodies, seen in a vague and fragmentary way. The apron and the woman are survivors, insisting on our attention.
Other drawings in the series are more oblique in their approach. One of my favorites (#28) features a huge, gorgeously drawn human ear (grandmother’s) glowing against a deep black background, the whorls of the ear merging seamlessly with a printed fabric featuring ascending birds and floral forms. For Feferman the giant ear seems to symbolize the act of bearing witness, and the lyrical cloth, the act of healing.
I wanted to like the rest of the show more than I did. Feferman (who died in 2010) is not an artist who benefits from this extensive a treatment, filling the largest room in the museum with a hundred-odd works, spanning 35 years. Too large by at least half, the show contains many pieces that are too diverse in media and approach to make a coherent statement (giant puppets, cheerful illustrations, painted pottery), or do not measure up in quality.
Viewers who choose to focus on the standout Golden Hand drawings and accompanying book, and several visionary and effective works from earlier stages of Feferman’s career (a spectacular, one-off, fabric creature with human eyes, for example) , will use their time more wisely than to try to take it all in.