Chicago

Beverly Feldmann

Nancy Lurie Gallery

Given the eclectic ambitiousness of much contemporary art, Beverly Feldmann’s ink drawings and collages seem ingenuous. if not outrageously effortless. Drawing appears to bore her. She scrawls boxlike rooms with paper-thin walls. These contain only the most essential items depicted in childlike shorthand. Even the unsophisticated handwriting appears uncomfortably placed next to her drawings.

What saves Feldmann is that she is a poet, an Emily Dickinson of Chicago’s South Side. Even in the tiny tragedies of broken families that she illustrates best one senses a sardonic compassion: she brings pathos to easily forgotten lives. In depicting life in lower middle-class households from Stony Island Park to Hammond on the South Side. to an outsider one vast plain of gray clapboard tenements and tiny one-family houses sheathed in asphalt, Feldmann brings excruciating honesty. She knows well the territory and the restrictions of its Catholic training “Many hours were spent gazing at Holy cards and observing the rituals of her blue collar Polish neighborhood.”

Feldmann’s first show two years ago captured married suburban existence in one of the bedroom communities west of Chicago. A housewife by then. she retained the art school fantasies, the endless chores, the telephone, lighting up the “soaps,” the babies, and of course the ever constant presence of the mainly absent husband. A master at sketching domestic isolation in a few words. Feldmann’s handling of marital tensions is unfailingly superb. Her drawings are continually haunted by the themes of parental brutality to children, both deliberate and unconscious. and the desperation of women caught in the conventional traps of their gender.

Much in the present show is definitely upbeat. Sparsely using gouache color and a variety of wrapping papers with white matboard, Feldmann gives us ten playful homages to the roles of womanhood, and four collages based on the experience of childbearing. These lack the bite and power of the earlier show but the other half of her work has all the perceptive anguish of her first drawings.

In Living for Art Feldmann pieces together bits of conversation about a woman artist suffering a succession of nervous breakdowns:

“Trapped by Art’s needs/it could maker her sick/Creative compulsion/it paid her way/to psychiatric institutions/The gallery sold her all the time.”

Her minitragedy The Basement Bride describes a teenage girl raising an illegitimate son in a basement. The teen finally marries to block out the experience, while the boy, “Now . . . grown, his face imprinted with her smile . . . rapes women in ’79.”

Heather-California concerns a child, a bit “crazy and dirty” who is daily tied up to a clothesline post by her family: “She was just a child who lived there: and you just paid her no mind.”

The best summary of Feldmann’s art is her attempt to understand her father who began factory work at the age of 14 and, now in retirement, resentfully tends his garden “He labored for the money/a life taken in the service of time/to make a living/embarrassed/Without an office nameplate.”

Jack Burnham