June 5, 2017
On a curved side street in Paris, a gallery window opens onto an idyllic view of Rome. It is not the Rome of the present, but rather it is a fantastical combination of ruins, Arcadian gardens, and lounging figures, all in black, white, and deep red. This is Rachel Feinstein’s Roma (2017), a section of her panoramic wallpaper Panorama of Rome (2012), specially chosen for Le Mur, an exhibition space that seeks to expand and defy the traditional gallery, the “white cube.”
Printed on reflective vinyl, so that the sky becomes a mirror, Roma transforms the gallery space into a fairytale. The impressionistic brushstrokes, rococo curves, and silvery surfaces cause the wall to fall away, altering not only place, but also time, as it transports viewers to a Rome that oscillates between historic periods, simultaneously real and imagined. Gagosian's Angela Brown talks to Feinstein about 'bringing Rome to Paris' in the following conversation.
ANGELA BROWN: Le Mur invites artists whose work goes beyond the so-called white cube. In Panorama of Rome (2012), you use painterly techniques that were popular long before the “white cube” even existed—the rococo, nineteenth-century panorama rooms, Renaissance frescoes, even Poussin and Corot. Why look back to these artists and styles?
RACHEL FEINSTEIN: The rococo artists were referencing ruins of Greek and Roman sculptures because they felt embarrassed of their tackiness at that time. They saw the style of classical art as the grand style. Poussin was all about that too, this idea of Arcadia: that everything was beautiful and everyone was as smart as Aristotle, but of course, that’s ridiculous. Actually, we know now, that all the temples were painted garish colors, and they were really tacky. Then, in the last century, there was a shift where the grand style changed from ornate decoration to a more minimalist approach. The wealthy had no interest in that style anymore. So I use the palace throughout history as a reference. Who would [Vladimir] Putin choose as his architect right now, and, in contrast, who would a contemporary art collector choose?
AB: Yes, there is a visible relationship to money. For example, how is it that when we see a modern building, something like Phillip Johnson’s Glass House, we immediately read wealth? How do certain materials, even industrial ones like glass and steel, become coded signifiers of class?
RF: Exactly. Donald Judd, for example, why would he be considered a symbol of wealth, but then a German Gothic sculpture by Master H.L. is considered less desirable? Not as many collectors now want old master art because it’s old, not young and sexy. Rich people want the soup can, they want the pared-down display of wealth.
I think there is always a need for the over-the-top in fashion, music, interior design, opera, ballet, film, and architecture, but there is never a desire for it in contemporary art. That’s why I do what I do. I find it really fascinating to be out of fashion. I feel like I’ve been out of fashion my whole life. I grew up in Miami in the 1980s. All the boys in high school wanted really tan, short cheerleaders with big hair and I was this pale girl who was into making art and wearing black clothing. I feel like my work is a continuation of always doing the opposite of what is wanted. I want to use the style and craftsmanship of the rococo palace but make it my own. Fairytales have always been a big part of my work too—these ideas of yin and yang, the good and the bad, the light and the dark. It’s always a combination of two opposite sides.
AB: I want to go back to the Poussin reference that you made, especially now that Panorama of Rome is in Paris. Poussin became a prized painter of France by depicting a classical past that was not necessarily French. So it’s interesting because you also have these sublime landscapes that combine separated times and art historical styles. You have foliage that recalls the landscapes of Corot, or subjects from baroque decorative arts all coming together cohesively.
RF: I think I can combine these things simply because I’m alive now. You can’t make a Corot landscape now because it just looks silly. But it’s not uncommon for artists in their own time to find themselves to be tacky, just because the patina of age makes everything look like it’s classy and from before our own time.
AB: This applies to the mainstream image making that we’re doing everyday. Something like Instagram gets hugely popular because you can make something look like you pulled it out of a photo album from 1960 even though you took it on your iPhone yesterday.
RF: That’s what I’m completely amazed by. What will happen with social media in terms of that patina of age? Things are being looked at so much more quickly because of it. I think that is why contemporary art and fashion have become so linked in the last ten years. When I graduated from college in the early 1990s, if you were an artist, especially a female artist, it was considered horrible if you had an article about your work in a fashion magazine. You would never do that. Now it’s very common. Look at Jeff Koons, for example, who’s working with Louis Vuitton. There is this complete and utter acceptance of the two worlds being intertwined because they are very similar. The reason why the public of the 1800s loved opera and ballet is because they had the attention spans to sit through a two to three hour production. Now nobody has the attention span to sit through anything like that. Art and fashion are very fast things. You go into a gallery, you look for five minutes and then you walk out. You go to a runway show, the whole thing is over in less than ten minutes. I think that our attention spans have kind of been destroyed by what’s happening with our phones and social media and I’m really worried about it because the idea of taking the time to make something really extraordinary is what high craft is.
AB: Panorama of Rome, due to its scale and level of detail, invites long, immersive looking—but then it’s printed on a mirror, which changes constantly. Do you think that viewers will interact with it differently than they would with a more standard-sized canvas in a gallery?
RF: I think about the effects of the stark white gallery space a lot. I have never felt that my work really looked best in that setting. I loved how my work looked in Madison Square Park though. That was a totally new experience, just watching people randomly walk by my sculptures in a very informal, natural setting. It was not that experience of coming into the hushed, totally formal white box of a gallery or a museum. Walking into a gallery instantly makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. John [Currin] and I have talked about how making art is a male process, because artists are trying to make another person feel what we are feeling inside, to penetrate the viewer with our feelings and images. I do not consciously try to to do that in my work. However, the white cube itself makes art appear more aggressive as this projection, coming out at you from the bare wall or bare room. I realized that’s what I hated. Imagine seeing that contemporary painting or sculpture in an old granny’s living room instead of a bare white room with fluorescent lights, I think its aggressive power would be instantly neutered. One of the things that I used to love was seeing art within the setting of an old movie. I’ve always tried to figure out a way to make that experience happen in my sculpture or my painting.
AB: Panorama of Rome does change the entire atmosphere of a gallery space. Through the window, into the street, it asserts itself, but remains on the wall, in the background. How did you become interested in wallpaper, and how do you think it acts against the constraints of the “white cube”?
RF: I’ve always been crazy for wallpaper—I probably have every collected book on wallpaper. There is a Zuber [French manufacturer of painted wallpaper] panorama in the White House. It’s called Scenes of North America; Jacqueline Kennedy installed it and it’s fantastic. As a kid I was obsessed with looking at photographs of dignitaries in this weird space. For me, the person in the photo would become this Gothic sculpture with this incredible painting behind them. That’s where I think my interest started and then I began using black-and-white tones. I’m not too invested in color. I like the grisaille wallpaper best.
AB: But you do have those maroons and reds in Panorama of Rome.
RF: Yes. Originally I made the room painting all in black and white, and then John suggested putting the red on the foliage and it completely made it pop. The truth is that once I start painting, it goes quickly. It’s composing the image that takes so long. They’re all fake images so putting them together is complicated.
AB: Where do you usually find the images?
RF: Some are from paintings and photographs and some are from wallpaper. I used to go the public library and look things up on microfiche! [laughs] Crazy, but now you can look it all up online. But a lot of the wallpaper stuff is not online. Many things that are really old and are not on the contemporary public’s radar haven’t been scanned yet, and I imagine the wallpaper companies don’t want people to be able to print them themselves. I usually take the flow of a landscape from an existing historic wallpaper in order to figure out how the whole thing is structured. I don’t like to start something from nothing. So I’ll use that as my template and then add to it.
AB: How does it feel to shift from your sculptural practice to these two-dimensional views?
RF: Maybe that’s where I want to see penetration. With my first mirror paintings, paintings of old ladies, I wanted to have these black holes on the wall to reflect the three-dimensionality of the sculpture. The sculpture was the positive and the painting was the negative. Then the mirrors reflecting these ornate sculptures gave me this idea of spatial landscapes. With the panorama paintings you are basically trying to create an enclosure. When panoramas first came about, they were made to be traveling expositions so people could feel like they were really in Rome. I have a lot of books on that and I really love the idea of being totally overtaken and sensorially immersed in an image. This is why I always put these carriages in, to reference the feeling of being transported. And with the panorama rooms, you go into a palace, but then also you feel like you’re outside in a jungle. How amazing is that, to feel as if you are both inside and outside and in a totally different city or landscape, all at the same time?
AB: It seems like, in your work, you find these fantastical spaces in the past more often than you do in the present. Why do you think that is?
RF: Honestly, I feel utterly lost in our time. I don’t feel like what I do and how I think and anything about me is supposed to be part of this world. I mean I am obviously using the computer to search for my sources now, and I have used 3-D scans for my sculptures, but I don’t have a machine make the final sculpture. I still get my hand carving and cutting at the end. I think it’s really all about the hand of the artist, and they haven’t figured out how to replicate that.
AB: At Le Mur, you can see the wall with the wallpaper through a window at street level. This makes me think of the Parisian vitrine, the shop window, and that element of desire. How do you think the window might change the way the work looks? Especially since, when you first showed it, it was on the curved walls of Gagosian Rome.
RF: When I showed the full wallpaper [at Gagosian Rome in 2013], a lot of people were actually worried about how the Romans were going to feel about it—a scene of Rome, in Rome? But it seemed to go over really well because it was such a wacky idea. For this version at Le Mur, I started to like the idea of the relationship between Rome and Paris. I had to choose one section to show on its own, which was difficult. John’s favorite is the garden scene, and he kept pushing me to use that, so I did, but there were more identifiable famous Roman places in the painting like the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps, sights that would be obviously more identifiable as Rome. It changed so much over time, it was wild. I’m actually installing the whole thing in my house out on Long Island. The sizes are variable because it’s based on this computer file of the original painting.
AB: Did you know you were going to use the mirror, or print on this reflective material, from the beginning?
RF: Yes, I mean there were funny things that I knew I was going to do, but then I never realized I’d have to hire a computer person. I was like, I’m going to do mirror paintings and then I’m going to do mirror wallpaper. But then we printed it as a test—and, of course, it printed the entire surface. In other words, the actual mirror that my original painting was on top of was printed over the mirrored paper, which of course negated the entire concept. I was like, Wait, there’s no mirror anymore! So then I had to have someone go through the whole thing and Photoshop out the negative space.
AB: It’s interesting that the mirror was one of the things that you knew you wanted from the beginning, because it automatically multiplies the sensation. It’s very much in line with your rococo impulse.
RF: I will always consciously overdo it. I’m the person you sit next to at a dinner party and you get my entire life story in the first ten minutes and either you like it or you hate it. There’s no in-between. I think life is too short, I just want to give everything in the moment. I want to be the person that wears my heart on my sleeve, you know?