On a trip to Berkeley, California, Molly Gilroy discovered Sylvia Fein’s hypnotic and blazing work, The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012, an image, which in postcard form, has given her hope during lockdown.
“I like it when I surprise myself…I can’t tell anybody why I paint or what I paint. Why do I breathe?”
I was in Berkley, California. It was supposed to be the foggy season, but I was wearing Hepburn-esque sunglasses. That morning, I’d travelled on the BART from San Francisco. Berkley felt like the shy sibling of the Golden city; it’s muted tones, flat roads and low-rise unpainted houses encouraging a contemplative gaze. I had been eager to visit BAMPFA, to complete my ephemeral tour of the Bay Area and East Side’s galleries. I paid my admission fee, took a gallery map, and stumbled headfirst into my fascination with le merveilleux of Sylvia Fein’s work.
I clicked on my Olympus, its strap digging into my neck, reminding me of its eager archival eye. The gallery room was small and unassuming; not the grandeur of a solo retrospective, on Wisconsin-born Fein’s 70 year oeuvre, that might be expected. Yet, there was a warm intimacy to the space, a feeling which is often drowned within the larger ‘white cube’ galleries. Here, I was submerged in the watery green worlds of Fein’s fantasies.
Despite defying the label of surrealism, Fein’s work, mastering the technique of egg-tempura, holds surrealist sensibilities of a spiritual and esoteric return to the sanctuary of nature, aligning her with contemporaries such Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Like Carrington’s own prolonged occupation with and dedication to egg tempura, Fein contemplates the mesmerising textural qualities of the technique which imbues kineticism to her work; “I love it’s transparency. I also love its opacity. And it does have a certain underglow that I like…” There is an aura around her work; the layers of glossed paint intoxicating the eye with shapeshifting colour.
At BAMPHA, I was captured by the way Fein suspends herself into colour and movement, building layers of a world both above and underneath our own. Her series of cosmic ‘Eyes’ are indicative of the multiple ways in which she works through and with the world in boundless rich imagination. Within her more recent work (2008-2012), I saw a renewed energy and a determination to expel trauma within herself onto the canvas. The Painting Told Me What to Do (2012) caught my eye and I was enraptured. It is both a vulnerable and terrifying piece; trees metamorphosising into fleshy corporal veins and open wounds. The painting screams in agony, the red fires pulsating with trauma, enveloping into themselves, like cosmic black holes.
Though on the periphery of surrealism, after experiencing her work (and I describe it quite deliberately as a ‘felt-experience’ rather than a passive act; she draws you into her lustrous worlds), I have felt the need to stress the importance of acknowledging Fein as a vital artist of surrealism’s present day vitality. Fein was part of a collective of artists in the early 1940s based in Madison and Milwaukee; the Midwest Surrealists. Although her work has been re-presented at key exhibitions, such as LACMA’s exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States (2019), the dialogues surrounding her affinities with surrealism are slight.
I collected the only ‘souvenir’ of Fein’s work available. It was larger than the average postcard, featuring two photographers of her paintings: The Painting Told Me What to Do and View of the Valley (1956). Five thousand miles away, back home, I placed the postcard on my bedroom mirror, as if drawing a connection between Fein’s spiritual and convulsive landscapes to my own self-image. Now, in June 2020, the postcard seems particularly aptly placed. Every morning and evening, I find myself calling on Fein’s painting; tell me what to do, where to go, how to act. It becomes a ritual. I muse on the power of Fein’s brush stroke to invoke a new reality, to carve a new line and angle on the canvas; lines of a predetermined future. Fein’s title places an emphasis on acknowledging the painting as the locus of a hermetic goddess, one which has the power to imbue wisdom and a sense of self-found autonomy on the spectator. When I gaze, I find myself relinquishing my ‘powers’ of decision making over to the painting and into the open wounds of the tree-like fires. In this uncertain time, I find pleasure in this cathartic act. The sense of collective trauma Fein creates is haunting; each fire stands alone but Fein ripples their agony across the canvas. The painting holds more significance to me now, becoming a microcosmic representation of individual current anxieties and the collective fear and emotional pain within our global communities.
I like how Fein makes you look and look again; one minute the fires are fires and the next they are metamorphosising into women’s sexual parts. Nothing is stable. Amongst the erupting fires, that question the boundaries between human and vegetal, there is also a subdued layer of healing to the painting, something I hadn’t noticed before. I am reminded of Fein’s expression of an ‘underglow’; a glimmer of renewal and rebirth at play. The otherworldly beings are cocooned by a lustrous and grassy green, embalming the raw fraying edges of decaying particles with something clean and cool. There is hope and regeneration as new vein-like roots emerge.
This is what I choose to focus on now, when I look in my mirror and at the chaos beyond my four walls. Fein’s painting told me what to do; it told me to hold out, to wait for that magical ‘underglow’ of spiritual and physical restoration, so that slowly, the torn edges of ourselves come back to us, no longer singed, but fertile for growth.
About Molly Gilroy
Molly holds a Masters Distinction in Film, Exhibition and Curation from the University of Edinburgh (2019), completing her dissertation on the ‘Haptic and Tactile Encounters of the Female Muse within Contemporary Female Surrealists’ Films’ such as Bady Minck, Sarah Pucill and Carolee Schneemann. Molly is looking to pursue a PhD, whilst acting as the co-editor and co-founder of the contemporary feminist-surrealist journal, The Debutante, seeking to redress discrimination in the arts. Issue 01 ‘The Feminist-Surrealist Manifesto’ launched at The Scottish National Galleries of Modern Art in January 2019 and the co-editors are now working on Issue 02 ‘Feminist-Surrealist Odyssey’s’. Across 2019, Molly has presented papers focusing on female surrealists at the International Society for the Study of Surrealism (Exeter), Beastly Modernisms (Glasgow) and This Woman’s Work: A Kate Bush Symposium (Edinburgh). She has a 1st Class BA Honours in English Literature from the University of Exeter (2018), taking an interdisciplinary approach to her dissertation on hybrid feline-females in the works of Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Remedios Varo. Follow Molly on Twitter @MollyGilroy_
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.