There is something comforting about seeing proof that someone else feels the same way you do, a tactile representation of emotional exhaustion and bleak pessimism given everything *gestures* going on. Amy Feldman, I feel you. Feldman’s Nerve Reserve at James Cohan Gallery touches upon the artist’s own personal history with anxiety, and the inner turmoil embroiled within. Upon viewing the yonic amorphous shapes that occupy her expansive canvases, one enters Feldman’s mundane sublime — a world so drained of color, life, and positivity that it might provoke figurative existential weeping. That is, if my tear ducts haven’t dried up from questioning the meaning of it all.
In psychiatry, depression is defined as a condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal–sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason. The success of Feldman’s work to procure such a deliberately sullen state of mind is owed to how it infiltrates senses beyond mere optics. Sublime Slime (2017) evokes the icing piped around a cake, complete with confetti sprinkles devoid of its usual beckoning color or artificial sweetness. Leaning closely to the thickly impastoed swaths of paint, my mouth began to taste like ashes and antidepressants.
Without the senses, it is difficult to feel pleasure or pain, to gather a sense of purposeful existence or connection to a larger social body. Moving from painting to painting, the viewer is denied much variation in composition or color. Feldman’s deceptively simple pale grey palette seems to mix the pallor of cigarette cinders, fresh concrete, and expired farm-grown salmon flesh. There are frequent minute drips and splatters, which provide a sense of gravity, wetness, and indifference to the outward visibility of these forces. Are the raindrops falling from the sky, or from my eyes?
I appreciate Feldman’s ability to deliver a clever punch line, which imbues the work with levity that swerves to avoid pretension or self-seriousness. With alliterative, punny titles such as “Gawd Gaud” or “Goofy Gloom,” Feldman displays awareness of the self-interested doom she depicts. It’s a sad situation to feel sorry for yourself, but even sadder to imagine that others will find your emotional state funny. I’m reminded of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, in which the main character with chronic depression eases manic episodes and becomes more calm only when her personal apocalypse slowly becomes a conceivable reality for others. Like the chalky aftertaste of her images, or a late-career clown, Feldman’s humor is dry and fraught with nihilistic defeatism.
James Cohan’s smaller back gallery holds a treasure trove of smaller sketches that offer examples of what might inspire Feldman’s motifs. They also offer a glimpse at her process of painting large-scale works, each beginning with thick marker drawings. Loopy caucasian foods such as an impenetrable tan bundt cake that would be the envy of any 70s Dinner Food Party bleach the taste buds, reminiscent of Chloe Wise’s gendered food artworks that mock our fancy food-driven existence. Another favorite was Untitled (2017), which features the outline of a downcast woman done in the artistic manner of “First Aid for Choking” signs. Together, these works challenge the clinical sterility that characterizes modern life, which increasingly leaves little room to emote.
One critic RM Vaughan of Art F City recently lambasted Feldman for not creating artworks that he could interpret or be entertained by. In a review littered with mental health stigma and misogyny, Vaughan violently declared that Feldman’s “dead-inside art” appeared “to have been made by a ward of distracted Thorazine swallowers.” It must have been hard for white male Vaughan to finally feel excluded from something, as he raged, “What…is the damned point anymore?”
For Feldman, there doesn’t seem to be one — at least not a definitive goal outlined by hypermasculine intellectualism as romanticized by Vaughan — which might be precisely the point. In paintings like Goofy Gloom and Tragic Magic, we can trace how Feldman’s painterly gestures begin to fill in an biomorphic shape, giving up abruptly before completion, as if to inquire, “Why?”
Indeed, what is the purpose of any of this? What utilitarian value to a patriarchal capitalist society does a powerful expression of female emotional void serve? If you have doubts, it only contributes to the cause that Feldman makes.