How China gave sculpture’s queen of hyperrealism Carole A. Feuerman one of her first big breaks
‘Europe and China got it,’ says New York artist of her lifelike sculptures of swimmers and others. ‘Showing in other continents helped me make it in the US’
There is something in Carole A. Feuerman’s art that provokes visitors to her exhibitions to linger and stare for an uncommonly long time. They might be marvelling at the tiny pouf of belly over a bikini bottom, or the muscle tone in a slender upper arm, or be tempted to reach out and catch a droplet of water from the angled chin of one of her sculptures.
After all, there is a reason that Feuerman is considered the queen of hyperrealism. The New York-based sculptor, who has mounted exhibitions in China, Korea, Miami, St Tropez, London, Germany, Positano and Capri (and that was just last year), creates pieces so lifelike that it’s hard not to feel rude because of all that staring.
Feueurman was in her Manhattan studio on a frosty December morning, shortly after wrapping a month-long solo show at the Huan Tai Hu Museum in Changzhou in China’s Jiangsu province. She has had a long relationship with the country, after submitting a piece 25 years ago to a sculpture park in a remote region. In 2015, she had a show at Harbour City in Hong Kong.
And it all started, she says, from her fascination with aquatics; the pieces that Feuerman is most noted for are of swimmers – graceful, lean, life-sized sculptures that seem, on the surface, to be whimsical but are actually studies in the human form.
Feuerman bases her swimming series on her childhood beach excursions in Long Island, where she would focus on the patterns of droplets that formed on her skin, and how there seemed something so harmonious about the act of a body dipping into and out of the water.
Perhaps the best known work in her swimmer series is The Survival of Serena, a sculpture of a swimmer, eyes closed, resting her head on a folded arm atop an inner tube. The piece wa first shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and was named partly as a tribute to the waterlogged city’s nickname – La Serenissima.
“They’re very calm pieces,” says Feuerman, looking out over her bustling studio, which takes up most of the floor of a midtown building. “They have a universal appeal, which I think is because people can relate to the feelings of grace.”
Serena, she says, was inspired by stories she had read about people fleeing from their homelands to arrive as penniless immigrants in another country. “They risk their lives on tubes and floats to go from one country to another,” says Feuerman. “It’s an image that resonates with people of all nations. They can relate to that tranquillity, that feeling of peace, survival and strength.”
Feuerman has worked on other series, too – she’s sculpted dancers, and created a stunning DurgaMa, the Hindu goddess, laden with gold jewellery and meditating cross-legged atop a pink lotus flower (albeit wearing a bathing suit).
The essence of all her sculptures, she says, is grounded in her childhood fascination with not just art, but in how people sit, stand, carry themselves.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist, from when I was three or four years old,” she says. “I loved to draw, and I was always interested in what people were feeling. I study and stare at people’s faces, catching a glimpse when they’re not looking. Your body gestures say so much, they give away what you’re thinking, even more than your facial expressions do.”
She started as a painter and illustrator, and wasn’t initially drawn to sculpture, “because there was no realism, and everything was abstract”.
“It just wasn’t interesting to me,” she says. “When I first came up with the idea that I could make a sculpture of a person, it was so foreign to galleries and cities and museums that they didn’t even look at it as sculpture. When I wanted to put a sculpture of a swimmer outside in the city, here in the US they thought it was laughable.
“It was different in Europe and China, though. They got it. And it was through showing in other continents that helped me make it in the US. It’s still a very niche world, though – time-consuming, labour-intensive. There have been many times when I’ve questioned my sanity, and asked myself, ‘why?’”
Feuerman works at multiple levels: there are limited edition prints, miniatures, life size sculptures and then her “monumentals” – which are 11 metres high, and are acquired by museums, sculpture gardens and cities.
The monumentals are made of bronze and coated with automotive paint, and can take between three and five years to complete. The smaller, life-size pieces, designed for indoor spaces, are made of resin. The monumental size of her Golden Mean – an elegant sculpture of a muscled swimmer in a golden cap, in the throes of a handstand – is owned by a few cities. It was inspired by Feuerman wanting to portray that “you always have to strive to get ahead, but you always have to have that balance – if you go too far to the right, or the left, you’ll fall over. Strive to excel, but stay balanced.”