Beverly Feldmann

Nancy Lurie and A.R.C. galleries

The tone of Beverly Feldmann’s drawings and performances is a childlike sort of realism. Primitivistic drawings use a simple visual layout: usually black and white, pen and ink picture on top and handwritten commentary below—unpretentious visions which can give a hint of the type of things which may lead children out of blissful innocence and into hardened adulthood. The naive renderings of chairs, windows, doors, and hallways add a lingering ironic voice to her best work. One picture communicates the story of a little girl who was tied to a post all day and considered crazy, and the characteristic naive format furthers the idea of this content as strictly believable, a sort of child’s simple clear-eyed rendition of the truth, not the fantasy audiences might wish to regard such subject matter. So Feldmann also functions as a sort of missionary journalist, loyally reporting certain typically suppressed stories.

That these stories are suppressed although they happen every day is much of her message and she is most successful at mixing everyday notions of what is ordinary and abnormal, what is secure and threatening. Feldmann frequently implies that perhaps “ordinary” people don’t exist—perhaps we should throw out the concept entirely—and that, to follow the logical train, people considered “out of the ordinary” may be only taking the rap for more ordinary nastiness.

Her pictures often show “ordinary” surroundings with commentaries suggesting the bizarre. In a box-roomed apartment—the sort of ubiquitous, middle-class, plastic-covered furniture setting—a man pays a little girl a quarter for being pretty. Is that as ordinary as the drawing and the furniture? Her frequent revelations of sexism and hypocrisy in the Catholic Chruch show up the all-too characteristic absurd toleration or quiet hypocrisy—as in the story of Sister Louise who routinely imagines parts of her body going to sleep in order to ward off fantasies of sexual desire. Feldmann’s bizarre commentaries may have more to do with reality than the proper drawings—something akin to the showier, slicker work of Dottie Attie, who isolates segments of conventional Old Master paintings and then attaches improper captions which no one likes to think about.

And yet much of Feldmann’s work misses the mark. In drawings such as Get It and Sibling Conversation, rambling commentaries produce a sort of ambiguously poetic effect, thereby destroying irony, realism, and any semblance of serious intentions. Similarly, her performances usually suffer from ambivalence and come across as a frustrating tease. Standing before a mixed group of businessmen, society ladies, and art students, she monologues the tale of an unfortunate youth whose bra is ripped off by a nun in a futile search for padding, providing no context by which to judge whether the artist places a positive or a negative value on the event. Any irony to be derived from an intended deadpan, monotone, contemplative presentation is lost by her frequent hesitations and nervous half-smiles. Is she trying to make the audience “like” the work?

Feldmann’s efforts seem generally to come across best to people who are similar to Feldmann—viewers who already believe in and identify with the content. This merely indicates the larger problem: her work definitely needs to surmount communication barriers.

C. L. Morrison