DEEPLY affected by 9/11, the New York artist Rachel Feinstein began picturing in her mind a Renaissance-era peasant walking into a church, confronting a Crucifixion, and seeing it as a sign of God’s love and protection. She told this story to the journalist Steven Vincent when they met to discuss the plywood sculpture of the Crucifixion which she made because of this imagined scene.
That was in 2003, but living through the pandemic and re-reading Vincent’s article made Feinstein want to use religious iconography in her work again, as she found that her Crucifixion had opened something up within. The result is “Mirror”, her current exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery.
Feinstein has a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother and, when at university, chose to study art, religion, and philosophy. These influences inhabit her work, but it seems as though troubled times are when religious iconography surfaces most strongly in her work.
She has said that Carved Splendor, a book on limewood German altar sculptures from the 1500s, is the most well-thumbed book in her studio. Her paintings in “Mirror” reference altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider and a polychrome figure by Gregor Erhart, another German sculptor of the era.
The works begin with charcoal drawings of figures selected from details of these historical sculptures. Next, pastel drawings at full scale on wooden panels are developed before Feinstein then paints the images on to mirrors.
Feinstein uses brown and grisaille tones to represent the intricately carved textures of the original works, but leaves the eyes of the figures unpainted. Those unpainted mirrored surfaces enable viewers to see the image, themselves, and their background at one and the same time; and this makes the viewer one with the painting and brings past images into the present.
The limewood sculptors united Gothic elegance with humanistic expression to represent religious figures including Christ, the apostles, and saints, including Mary Magdalene, as symbols of compassion, suffering, and love. Feinstein uses their historical and religious symbolism to embody worldwide anxieties of the unknown during the time of Covid.
After 9/11, Feinstein found solace in Old Master works of Jesus and Mary feeling their own pain, especially Matthias Grünewald’s Deposition paintings. The potential to empathise with the Gospel characters which is opened by Feinstein’s “Mirror” paintings, through eyes that reflect our features, enables the viewer to find solace similarly.
The mirrored surfaces of these works mean that, depending on our angle, we see ourselves in the image — looking over the shoulder of the characters or in their eyes — or see a silvery void where the organ of vision would normally be. When we appear in the reflection, we also see our world in the background, bringing images and characters from the past into our present.
When we look in the eyes of these characters and see ourselves reflected, it may be that that experience is revealing one key purpose of religion, especially when the central act of that religion involves God’s becoming a human being.
The reflective void in the eyes of these images means that they function as reverse icons, denying us the window to the divine which icons traditionally provide, while focusing our attention on the divinity found in humanity, ourselves included.
Another of Feinstein’s well-thumbed studio books is Maid, Madonna, Witch, a book of photographs by Andreas Feininger of the female form in art, a collection of images of women as seen by men.
Feinstein’s recent retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, “Maiden, Mother, Crone”, used a similar schema to explore her work in relation to three consequential stages in a woman’s life, a progression from youth to old age signalling her accumulation of knowledge and complexity. The key difference is that the images were all from the female perspective.
With Metal Storm, she was inspired through a 1514 drawing by Hans Baldung Grien, who was among the first to feature images of witches in his paintings and prints, and who worked in an era when women accused of witchcraft were persecuted in mass numbers. She has created a sculpture composed of interlocking wooden planes that represent three witches engaged in a ritual and holding aloft a container with flames that echo the tendrils of the figures’ hair.
For Feinstein, these witches represent a power and creativity that existed outside the strictures of patriarchal society: an archetype of femininity that was both feared and revered, and one regarded as a more dynamic creative force than the archetypal figure of the mother.
The stories and images on which Feinstein draws for inspiration and the works that she creates show us ourselves in our conflicts and restrictions, powers and potentialities.
“Rachel Feinstein: Mirror” is at Gagosian Gallery, 17-19 Davies Street, London W1, until 5 March. Phone 020 7493 3020. gagosian.com