Susan Feldman "Structures + Strings" Essay by Betty Ann Brown
Susan Feldman's Postmodern Merzbau
Susan Feldman converts wood scraps, rope, and textile detritus into elegant floor sculptures and wall works. She also employs her often-distressed materials as subjects for graphite and spray paint drawings on Claybord and birch ply panels. In doing so, she engages the Modernist tradition of collage and assemblage initiated by artists like Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters, and translates that tradition into very contemporary Postmodernism a la Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson.
Picasso's Vallauris studio was next to an empty lot into which clay artists discarded fragments of metal and fired ceramics. In 1950, when the Spanish artist decided to create She Goat, he culled through piles of debris and located shapes that could be assembled into the animal's body: a basket, two jugs, a palm frond, etc. He "glued" these pieces together with plaster, then cast the entire form in bronze.
Decades earlier, German artist Kurt Schwitters had used various forms of debris to assemble two- and three-dimensional artworks. Schwitters called his collages "Merz art." At the end of World War I, he explained, "Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz." Some historians, observing that the letters "merz" comprise the middle syllable in the word "kommerziell" (German for commercial), have argued that Schwitters' work was intended as critique of the increased commercialization of Germany. More recently, MoMA blogger Elizabeth Thomas has added that "Schwitters made these collages...as hopeful portraits of how destruction can feed creation: how bits of advertising, scraps of newspaper, wood, garbage, and urban debris could all be collaged together into something new and beautiful."
In addition, Schwitters trash-picked enough wood to re-build the interior of his entire Hanover studio and transform it into a living sculpture. He referred to the three-dimensional work in his studio as
"Merzbau" (i.e., Merz building.) According to Thomas, "Merzbau developed into a kind of abstract walk-in collage composed of grottoes and columns and found objects, ever-shifting and ever-expanding. It was more than just a studio; it was itself a work of art." This is also true of Susan Feldman's Santa Monica studio. And it is true, by extension, of the expansive exhibition of her work in Groundspace Project.
Schwitters is usually called a Dada artist. American Robert Rauschenberg is often considered a neo-Dada practitioner. Living in New York at the height of Abstract Expressionist painting, Rauschenberg chose to create art that involved objects and images of contemporary material culture. One of his most notorious works involved a stuffed goat mounted on a platform of discarded street signs. Rauschenberg called his goat-based work a "combine." It was created nine years after Picasso finished his goat piece.
Because he appropriated historic objects and images, because he focused on intermedia and installation, and because he often crossed the historic barrier between high art and low art or craft, Rauschenberg is considered an archetypal Postmodernist. Another early Postmodernist is Louise Nevelson, whose magnificent wood sculptures were assembled from discarded boxes and fragments. Because Nevelson painted her wooden reliefs solid colors (most often black), she attained a painterly unity that might initially appear Modernist. But her use of detritus calls forth the very Postmodern concern with consumerist discards and the equally Postmodern merger of high art (reductionist monochrome abstractions) and low art (folk art carvings by the Outsider artists who work in wood).
Susan Feldman steps easily into the Picasso-Schwitters-Rauschenberg-Nevelson trajectory. She similarly mixes media and expands sculpture into installation. She creates art with formerly devalued "craft" techniques such woodcarving, weaving and knotting. Her totem-like figures stand as sentinels, erecting a whimsical playground for small fantastical creatures. (Sculpture as a playground?! It's a concept that sculptors from Michelangelo to Rodin never would have understood.) Her string installations fill the space with evocative, multicolored webs. (Marcel Duchamp--the eminence grise of Postmodernism--did similar string works as early as the late 1930s.) And her individual wall pieces recall Kurt Schwitters' (Relief in Relief) from the early 1940s.
The abstract nature of Susan Feldman's "Structures and String" invites imaginative engagement. The exhibition as a whole can be thought of as a singular vision, a three-dimensional picture. Feldman could say, with Schwitters,
"I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings; they suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints...It is possible to create using bits of old rubbish, and that's what I did, gluing and nailing them together...I am an artist and I nail my pictures together."
Betty Ann Brown
Review of "Structures & Strings" solo show at Groundspace Project by Betty Ann Brown
Feldmans exhibition involves installation, sculptures, and wall works that engage sculpture, weaving, and drawing. The central installation space is established by several human-scaled structures composed of found wood. They stand, like silent sentinels, between a gridded wall of drawings and an entryway sheltered by a string canopy. Equally evocative of natural and human-made realms, Feldmans oeuvre recalls French theorist Claude Levi-Strausss discussion of the artist as bricoleur, as one who constructs or builds from the (often discarded) materials at hand. (Betty Brown)
Review of "Structures & Strings"
Our indomitable captain Betty Ann Brown curated a delirious and joyful show of work by Susan Feldman Art at Groundspace Project and they are having a closing reception on the afternoon of this Saturday, May 30 at 4pm. If you've not seen it yet -- DO NOT MISS this lively playground of memory and materials, obsession and balance, wood and string and chutes and ladders, in a rich and witty arte povera explosion.
Shana Nys Dambrot - May 2015
Review of "Structures & Strings"
You must come to this exhibition! This robust solo show finds Susan Feldman conjuring a delightful forest of bristling wooden towers, string mapping, and willful suspensions of assemblages and disbelief. Her constructions of wood slats, scraps, and oddments are archipelagos of exoskeletal territories amid the surround of the entire installation. At first glance the sculptures seem to careen with wild instability, yet longer study reveals an inherent cohesion despite their teeming components.
Though there is a structural density to much of the framework, a lightness pervades the work, like Piranesi filtered through Dr. Seuss, a madcap complexity that can induce that strange giddy feeling sometimes known as a sense of wonder a rare and precious moment to experience.
A sort of connective tissue of strings and shadows ties the exhibition together, causing our gaze to meander up and around the room. Nails and thread combine in what might be thought of as circuit boards of the imagination, intriguing matrices that defy any attempt to impose understanding, and allow only whimsy to be processed. The interplay of solids, light, and shadow gives the air itself an almost tangible sense of volume, and we are pulled through the exhibition by the visual currents surrounding us.
Kerry Kugelman, May 2015
Kerry Kugelman is a Los Angeles based painter and writer. www.kerrykugelman.com/