Sylvia Fein, Kite Eye (or Eye Kite), 2006, egg tempera on board, 5 × 7".

Sylvia Fein, Kite Eye (or Eye Kite), 2006, egg tempera on board, 5 × 7".

Sylvia Fein

Born in 1919 in Milwaukee and engaged early on with a circle of artists associated with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Sylvia Fein moved to California in the late 1940s after a yearslong stay in Mexico and received her MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1951. She has long since been based in and associated with the East Bay (where she still resides, in Martinez, cultivating an orchard of olive trees that appears in some of her paintings). Yet her work has willfully eluded such paradigms as Abstract Expressionism or, closer to home, Bay Area Figuration. Instead, her diminutive pictures—egg tempera on gesso on panels—continue a sort of Magic Realism indebted to Renaissance techniques and oriented toward archly absurd, often convulsive or miasmic visions of a world. Her current presentation—expertly curated by Lawrence Rinder as one of his last shows while director and chief curator of the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive—spans roughly seventy years of her production, acknowledging the interruption of some thirty years during which Fein, among other things, wrote books based on the ideas of the art theorist Henry Schaefer-Simmern. Her topics encompassed the study of visual logic in the art of children, including that of her daughter. The show thus focuses on what Fein made before the early 1970s and where she picked up again in the mid-2000s.

Opening the exhibition with Island for Cats, 1946, Rinder establishes the artist’s interests: Here, in what is one of the larger, if still easel-size (rather than miniature) pieces, Fein centers the composition on a crag buffeted on all sides by roiling waves dotted with swimming and floating human and animal revelers. Swirling strokes of paint constitute a whirlpool mirrored in the comparably unsettled aqueous sky. The motifs and typologies that Island for Cats introduces extend beyond the titular cats and the bathers (who are underwater, save for their upturned legs). The viewer also encounters the uncannily bodily saplings that sprout from so many geological supports and the breakers from never-stilled seas—as well as pictorial devices, particularly illusionistic perspectival play. This image also relates to another facet of Fein’s life story: She made this work during those years in Mexico while preparing for a 1946 solo show at Perls Galleries in New York. The California landscape emerges thereafter in, for example, the hot-pink scene Five Mountains Near Red Bluff, 1956, with its ridged, phallic protrusions that evoke the architecture of ziggurats, again connecting the ground with all that is above.

In the more recent selections, waterscapes likewise persist. Many are indistinguishable from Fein’s celestial scenes, except that the former retain indications of figures populating the environment (Gone for a Swim, 2016, features an array of upturned black-stockinged feet, as a troupe of synchronized swimmers performs handstands in the emerald froth) and the latter are often punctuated with disembodied staring eyes. A few of these skies—Cat’s Eye, 2005; Dandelion Eye, 2009; and Lavender Eye in Orbit, 2010—zoom in on a single eye, seen at close range. Cat’s Eye frames the titular pet within the pupil, and in the related Kite Eye (or Eye Kite), 2006, the eye is tethered to strings that billow against a background of nothingness, the perverse composition recalling the terribly graphic eye-slicing scene in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929) and, more broadly, a range of Surrealist practices that trade on the effects of dreams and the manifest unconscious. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Fein showed with her better-known peers Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning in addition to Frida Kahlo, and fitting that her show, for most of its run, sat alongside “Strange,” a collection show about the long lives of global Surrealism and its iconography of revelations. The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012, depicting a stand of four trees consumed by the very fires that constitute them, suggests not sui generis creation but a process that is relational and material. For Fein, the image is always rooted in process, unlike so much Surrealism, which begins with an image. As in the quietly sublime Silent Moonlight Swim, 2018, decorated with silvery crests, Fein channels sensation more than apparition.