Rochelle Feinstein’s current exhibition at Campoli Presti, ‘Rainbow Room/ The Year in Hate’ is one of mirrored dualities. Bringing together a new body of work created this past year, the exhibition makes two opposing propositions, each one presented in one of the gallery’s two rooms. The propositions are based two formal devices: the rainbow and the calendar. One, a rare meteorological event, signifier of happiness, hope and new beginnings; the other, a system of reckoning time with reference to the beginning, length, and divisions of the year.
Since the 1990s, Feinstein has used the lexicon of abstract painting to approach subjects of both personal and social import, from the domestic act of hanging of dishtowels to dry (‘Flags, 1993), to the televised pursuit of OJ Simpson (‘El Bronco’, 1994), the Iraq War (‘Hotspot’, 2003 – present), and the 2008 financial crisis (‘The Estate of Rochelle F.’, 2010). But what lexicon, exactly, does she use? Grids, mainly, that modernist trope. For Rosalind Krauss, the grid signified the autonomy of art and it signified modern art’s will to silence – its hostility to literature, narrative, and figuration. The grid enclosed visual art exclusively within visuality. Following which, Feinstein, by using the grid as a structural device to comment upon the everyday, the subjective, and the socio-political forces that bear down upon us, expands its formal history in an art-about-art game. This simultaneously delivers a sly yet mordant satire of our current era.
The opposing duality of ‘Rainbow Room / The Year in Hate’ appears to be a running thread through Feinstein’s work, as critics have often approached her exhibitions in a similar manner. In 2011, Ken Johnson wrote of the exhibition ‘The Estate of Rochelle F.’ as “painting at the intersection of feminist insouciance and Rauschenbergian exuberance… toy[ing] here with the idea of ending the struggle”, while for the New Yorker, “painterly joie de vivre and political malaise face off” in the 2016 exhibition ‘Who Cares’. In each instance, the writer proclaims a winner, and that winner is positivity and perseverance. Which leaves us with the question: is there a clear victor between The Rainbow Room and The Year in Hate?
When I first walked into Feinstein’s exhibition, I thought of a rainbow I used to hate and now love. It exists in John Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, his great, turbulent painting of a town caught in a storm, the large, fluctuating cloud above as murky and full of water as the river flowing below. The atmosphere is so engorged with water it seems to exude from the painting, enveloping the viewer in the fresh yet heavy humidity that precedes storms. Within the huge, brown, churning sky, there is a rainbow. Thin, long and transparent, faint and fragile, it looks as though the storm’s forceful winds will destroy its delicate arch at any instant. Constable is a famously great observer of skies and this one, with a rainbow amidst a dark storm is a meteorological impossibility. The ‘Rainbow Room’ is similarly brownness and brightness, full of abstract paintings of both murky volutes and rainbow swashes. The effect is emotive, a landscape of interiority.
‘The Year in Hate’ part is dominated by six silkscreen paintings based on vintage photographs of Italian boxing matches from 1939 to 1946, a period that overlaps, of course, with WWII, the rise and fall Benito Mussolini’s fascist government, and the beginning of restoration. The photographs are arranged in a grid, as though the individual images were taken in close succession from one match instead of dozens. Most are overlaid with Xs, which makes it look both like a photography proof, in which the worst images have been crossed out, and a calendar marking the flow of days. Swashes of bright colour run over the images and the Xs, with suggestions of rainbows, their colours mounting in crescendo between the paintings, becoming violently orange. Oddly, the works feel flat and cold despite their charged imagery and content as the layering confuses and dilutes each individual element’s effect rather than build upon it.
Feinstein relates the work to Donald Trump’s administration, with its daily acts of violence and deception. And here the ebb and flow of rainbow colours function as distracting veil from violence happening just below. But the photographs themselves remind me of George Bellows’ paintings of boxers, from 1907-1909. Like Bellows’ paintings, the vintage photographs capture the essence of raw, male aggression while also conveying the vulnerability and resistance of bodies. The movements are quick and intervallic, the match is only a moment. The body is concrete, the most concrete thing in this exhibition, taut muscles, knuckles and blood in the midst of rainbows and clouds. And yet the boxing bodies also function as a momento mori, an image of ephemerality. The steam of sweat used to be referred to as smoking; reek is both vapour and stench. Classical and medieval understandings of the body saw it as full of internal fumes, which, when unbalanced, could produce melancholy, delirium and rage. The photographed Mussolini-era boxers are most certainly all dead; our own era of political delirium and rage will also pass.
Did ‘The Rainbow Room’ or ‘The Year in Hate’ win? There are two ways to see it. You could say that, even in the darkest times, there is light, just like in Constable’s painting. Or you could say that rainbows are just vacant atmosphere, a brief optical illusion following a storm. For rainbows and hate both ebb and flow, but one lingers longer and stronger than the other.