New York

Rochelle Feinstein

David Beitzel Gallery

Rochelle Feinstein has been described as a “savvy” painter, and it is easy to see what people mean. Flag, 1992, for instance, is a witty, feminist riposte to Jasper Johns. The flag in question is not the flag of imperial America, but a faded, checkered dish towel attached to the lower right-hand corner of the painting, which is otherwise filled with a wavering, strangely wistful orange grid that extends and comments on the humble design of the towel. There is nothing doctrinaire about this good-humored and down-to-earth gesture.

Apart from Johns, Feinstein’s main points of reference lie within the heroic period of pure abstraction, stretching from Kasimir Malevich to Barnett Newman. This is not really a matter of “appropriation”—that most tediously overused of post-Modernist tropes. The traditional terms “allusion,” “paraphrase,” and “parody” will serve quite nicely to describe what Feinstein is doing. Her attitude to what she has called “the megamyths of Modernism and the folly of mastery” is (again in her own words) “vagrant, unruly, deflationary.” She greatly nudges the macho masters towards the edges of their perilously high pedestals. Red Square, 1992, for example, pays homage to Malevich and commemorates the fall of the Soviet Union. Only the collaged edge of the square is red, the rest is taken up with a piece of dark-green cloth sewn to the canvas with gold thread. So Suprematism is domesticated. In the process much is lost and much is gained: we do not approach the sublime, but we escape self-importance, pretension, and rigidity. Feinstein knows that the masters of abstraction, like the ideologues of socialist utopianism, have failed (at least in their own absolute terms), but she clearly regards her tottering idols with affection and would like us to look back at the rejuvenating esthetic possibilities of their art.

Feinstein is not in the business of making one-line visual jokes or constructing bleak conceptual indicators. She knows that the ideas of an artist who neglects the sensuous properties of her art aren’t worth much, and the lasting impression this show leaves is one of restless invention and painterly virtuosity (even or especially when Feinstein isn’t actually using paint). This is evident in the way she handles the recurring motif of the grid: it can be muted and relatively orderly, as in Hi-Lite, 1992, or jewel-bright and crazily warped as if reflected in a fun-house mirror (Big A Go Go, 1992). Feinstein likes to work in sequences— Wonderful Hair, Wonderful Sex, It’s A Wonderful Life etc., 1992—and her work is best seen en masse.

In fact, the whole show is like a wildly divergent but somehow coherent set of variations. The paintings seem to comment on each other in ways that are both amusing and enlightening. It is rather as if the viewer were privileged to overhear a lucid and mordant critical symposium on the perilous condition of art in the late-20th century. In a phrase, Feinstein’s art is serious fun.

John Ash