Artist and sculptor Rachel Feinstein is presenting her new exhibition Mirror at the London Gagosian. Inspired by Gothic Art, the Reformation, and Biblical hermeneutics Feinstein creates an exhibition that calls you to stop and be present. In our interview we discuss anxiety, existential dread, creating in a moment of mass change created by Covid and whether the souls of people will survive or perish.
For your new exhibition Mirror, you talk about not being concerned with the ideas of “gender, desire, high and low culture, theatre, or taste in these works… it is about life and death.” Could you explain why you found this distinction necessary?
When I got the first press release from the gallery about my current show, there was a description about my artwork questioning gender, desire, high and low culture, theatre and taste. I wrote back saying, this show is not about those points for me anymore, it is about life and death. This is because the world has changed due to Covid the same way the world changed after 9/11/2001. I now question everything in the face of a worldwide pandemic in the same way artists have always continued to make art while confronted by wars or plagues. It puts into perspective what matters and what doesn’t.
You use religious characters and symbols from Christianity like Jesus and Nicodemus. Biblical text and Christianity have been used as foundations for ideas on gender, class, and society. How did you approach or grapple with these tensions in your work?
I was a religion major at Columbia University and was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. I have always been fascinated by the story and history of religions and their influences on one another; for example, how one can see the roots of Paganism in Christianity. I am currently undergoing Jungian analysis and have always been obsessed by the dualities in our world: man/woman; dark/light; young/old; right/left. These artworks combine the tension between these dualities in their physical form (positive/negative) and symbolism.
You refrain from painting eyes so viewers can see themselves in your work. As an artist what is your relationship with the idea of creating just for you and creating for an audience?
Because of my duality loving mind, I constantly experience being outside of myself and inside. So when I am painting on the mirror, I am both the artwork in the mirror and the artist. I am hoping that people have the same experience when viewing my mirror paintings. The mirror itself is also a duality - both a reflection and a deep hole.
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With both Jewish and Catholic parents, did you draw on any aspects of this or a personal faith journey for your Mirror exhibition?
I grew up loving both religions, but not feeling like I really belonged to either, so I was able to be an observer on the sidelines. The stories in the Bible are the parts that excite me the most, in the same way that reading Little Red Riding Hood does. It is about the deep inner psychological interpretation underneath the narration. I think a great artwork can mean something completely different to each viewer in the same way a Biblical story or fairytale can. I wanted to use universal symbols of Christian suffering as a way to express this in such an emotionally confusing time.
Talking about relations, your work reflects the stylings of the Gothic fin de siècle, a time of major sociopolitical and religious change. With this exhibit did you feel you were also making something in a time of great change yourself?
Yes, I just turned 50 and feel my own growth plates shifting like those of our world right now. With the invention of smartphones, I think we have lost our ability to reflect, which terrifies me. For thousands of years, humans have spent their free time, if they had any at all, pondering life and why we are here. Now, we fill our free time with our phones, and I don’t think this will end well for humankind.
Some of the materials you used for this exhibition are elemental: wood, charcoal, metal and glass, was this intentional?
Yes, I have always used easily transformative materials like wood and charcoal. They are usually cheap and easy to buy and are amenable to change if you don’t like where an artwork is going. I think of them as more left side/female materials and they speak to me.
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The single sculpture in your exhibition Metal Storm is composed of wooden panels that portray three witches engaged over a cauldron. A lot of retroactive engagement with biblical text, gothic literature and the medieval era takes archaic, patriarchal archetypes of female characters and queers them or offers contemporary lenses. What were you hoping for with your creation?
Metal Storm is inspired by a Hans Baldung Grien drawing of witches from 1514. He was an assistant to Albrecht Durer. I believe he was in the same circle as and knew Martin Luther, who changed the world with the Protestant Reformation. I believe we are also in a time of change. Balgung Grien used witches in his art to make money by selling titillation and the fear of loose women in a time when people were afraid because of world instability. He consciously chose his subject matter knowing that witches did not really exist but would sell. I’m fascinated by that and the idea of witches because I am a woman and artist. Baldung Grien made one of the wildest images I have ever seen: a witch squirting menstrual blood into a demon’s mouth! And we think that we are adventurous now - no way!
What was your favourite part of your creative process?
I love when I have finally come up with whatever will be the inspiration or motivation for my next show or body of artwork. I usually have no idea what that will be, and I spend a couple months or even a year or two mucking about. I go to bookstores like the Strand in NYC and make drawings for a while, and then slowly something starts to emerge, like a faint butterfly in my womb like when you first feel your baby kick. It is the best feeling ever.
On a personal note, what historic period holds your favourite style or time of Art and why?
I love the Germans - the late 1400s to mid-1500s, and the 1720s, 1740s, and pre–World Wars…Hans Baldung Grien, Amalienburg, and Max Beckman. They are all so intense and pushing things to the very edge, and if you look at where those eras and artists land on the timeline of history, these were moments of shifting seismic plates. I think we are in one of those moments ourselves.
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Shifting between artistic periods, mediums and materials your work embodies worldwide anxieties of the unknown, and from my perspective also the incorporeal. These last two years have seen many people looking back, whether it is through the comfort of nostalgia or just new anxieties. Do you consider your piece of work a way of you looking back for something?
I am filled with anxiety about our world and what will happen to humanity. I reread George Orwell’s 1984 and was flabbergasted that he was able to predict what is happening to our society now. Artists are witches, they can feel what is coming without even knowing it themselves. My antennae are up and feeling vibrations. I long for the 1990’s when everything seemed so simple, but of course the seeds were planted for what has grown into the problems of today. The out of body experience of Instagram and living on our phones will kill what is essential to appreciating a sculpture and a painting, which is experiencing it with your body, through your eyes, in person. The duality between your soul and your body does not exist on your phone.
What do you believe is core to all the work you make?
We are not the first people here making what we are making and doing what we are doing. We are literally standing on top of layers and layers of history underneath us: actual bodies, buildings, art, animals, food, plants, books, everything. It’s narcissistic, and actually disgusting to think we are everything that will ever be, and we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past. Open your eyes and read, observe, go to museums and experience things from the past so we don’t keep making such enormous blunders over and over again.
Rachel Feinstein exhibits Mirror at The Gagosian - January 27–March 5, 2022- Davies Street, London
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Sleeping Peter, 2021 © Rachel Feinstein Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian
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Nicodemus and Jesus, 2021 © Rachel Feinstein Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian
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Holy Blood, 2021 © Rachel Feinstein Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian
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Chris and Christ, 2021 © Rachel Feinstein Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian