Rachel Feinstein

There’s something slyly diabolical about Rachel Feinstein’s imaginary universe. The American sculptor is fixated on the most hedonistic and decorative manifestations of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century European court culture, whose visual codes she seems to enjoy re-creating in her own cultural backyard, but in an increasingly poisoned and desiccated way. Her sculpture used to be brightly colored; now it has become ghostly white and gray. To call this increasing austerity puritanical would make it sound too pious. Instead, hers is a sort of gleefully sabotaged rococo. This artist sets dreams afloat, only to slay them.

Feinstein’s second solo show in London was presided over by the formidable Aunt Pittypat (all works 2002), a half-length portrait of a middle-aged woman painted on an oval mirror in a slipshod, Fragonard-esque style in white and gray enamel (with a touch of pink). She wears a nineteenth-century dress and baby-doll curls, and she stares to the side with a knowing expression, lips curled cruelly as she stands over a cake, holding a glass of sherry. So this must be a birthday party—but there’s something far from festive about it: The candles, which have been blown out, are unusually large, and some have scarcely melted while others have dwindled to almost nothing, giving the whole scene a jagged edge. Aunt Pittypat is hardly a joyful character; you could imagine her casually observing a lynching, or knitting beside a guillotine. For anyone who stares in this mirror, Aunt Pittypat becomes a ghastly alter ego, our very own portrait à la Dorian Gray.

The other works in the show were installed so as to be neatly reflected in the mirror, incorporating them into Aunt Pittypat’s universe. These were two all-white sculptures, one a bestial parody of a reclining nude, and the other a vegetal wall piece. H is a jerry-built unicorn lounging louchely on a low oval pedestal, its body draped with a white sheet. Made from cheap, off-the-shelf materials (fabric, resin, plaster, foam, wood, and paint), the unicorn appears to have been bought in kit form and thrown together without following the instructions. The sensuality of this mythical creature is thwarted by its crumpled and ungainly appearance. It’s like a John Chamberlain version of the fabulous beast.

The largest work in the show was Arbor, a sprawling piece of fake vegetation that clings to the wall and reaches its tendrils out into the gallery and up toward the ceiling. Made from hinged pieces of wood that are painted white, part picket fence and part triffid, it could almost be rococo wood paneling that has gone to seed. Feinstein offers a vision of domestic mutation and ruination.

James Hall