New York

Rachel Feinstein

The announcement for Rachel Feinstein’s second solo exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery featured neither the artist’s trademark brummagem-Baroque sculptures nor her lesser-known paintings. Rather, the oversize folded mailer reproduced a photograph that, though not included in the show, clearly informed it. A very old woman, wearing a pristine fur coat and enormous, lilac-tinted, bug-eye shades beams at us. Her getup is impeccable: A crisp white cuff peeks from beneath the fur, and she sports an enormous ring with a squarish aqua gem that covers the breadth of two fingers. Dark red lipstick limns her mouth, and auburn ringlets cascade down to the center of her back.

The costume and pose are in fact a nearly identical copy of Feinstein’s own appearance in a Marc Jacobs ad from last season (the look of which was itself apparently borrowed from a painting by her husband, John Currin). Yet, whatever recycled accoutrements of glamour the photograph depicts, above all it dwells on beauty’s entropic undoing: The model’s neck and cheeks are pulled by wrinkles; her nose is filled with fuzz; her earlobes are distended; and, most arresting, her teeth are a snarling, rotting mess, pointing in all directions and varnished brown by the passage of thousands of cups of coffee and drags of tobacco.

Indeed, the elderly model was handpicked, it appears, due to her uncanny anticipation of how Feinstein might (but likely won’t, if high-price dentistry has anything to contribute) evolve physically over the next few decades. For this exhibition, Feinstein’s findings of herself in much older women were recorded, Dorian Gray–like, in a number of unremarkable pastel drawings on paper as well as in garish enamel paintings on mirrors (didactic, even pastiche, materializations of Oscar Wilde’s much more perverse metaphorical equation of painting and mirror). Corseted, wigged, and bejeweled, and sporting a parasol, a teacup, and a fawn, respectively, Rhoda, Ruth, and Marie, (all works 2005) are offered as variations on a stereotypical, slightly worn eighteenth-century aristocrat. Rendered in this intentionally overwrought, anachronistic style, Feinstein’s (self-)portraits feel, nonetheless, (self-)consciously contemporary, in line with the current vogue for noble iconography. Not reflecting on gendered art history or ageist social mores, the unabashedly solipsistic images are visual speculations in which the artist fancies time’s passage as yet another accessory.

Feinstein has previously taken up the Rococo, the Baroque, and the decorative in her sculpture. While not overtly concerned with deconstruction (she has repeatedly described her work as “happy, shiny things”), it has nonetheless exposed (but also relied on) the ways in which flourish has been historically coded as feminine. Yet the four sculptures exhibited this time around were merely clunky hybrids of kitschy Cubism and craft. Three cutout wood works, Good Times, Bad Times, and Old Times, parceled life into trimesters, while the fourth, a goopy white foam affair called Master HL, stood in a curved niche that penetrated one wall such that its pseudoclassical ass was visible to anyone entering the “rear” space of the gallery.

Feinstein potentially addresses a number of complicated and compelling issues including gender, beauty, stereotyping, aging, and class. (Cindy Sherman’s spectacular photographs of herself done up as a variety of East Coast and West Coast “types” from a few years ago are a useful comparison.) Yet, in this exhibition, it seems that Feinstein is unwilling to admit the anxiety that attends her project. While the works might arguably operate as symbolic talismans against getting older or fantasies of doing so “gracefully,” they are first-and-foremost celebratory caricatures, self-indulgent and vain (it is as if Feinstein feels able to show us what she might become strictly because she hasn’t yet). Only the announcement’s photograph—which, after all, exposes the sitter much more than the artist she ostensibly resembles—offers a believable hint of why Dorian Gray secreted his portrait in the attic.

Johanna Burton