Reviewed by David Gilbert
The materials that make up artist Tony Feher’s work are instantly recognizable. We know the soda bottles and plastic berry baskets at once, but, as the images in this new book reveal, the forms made from these materials are much more ambiguous. The amassed blobs, pods, and clusters are not easy to pin down or recognize; kind of architectural, kind of biological, kind of anthropological, even kind of extra-terrestrial. Like countless things, Feher’s sculptures situate themselves comfortably somewhere in–between all of them. Since we can identify the materials, but not the forms, the work toes the line between being abstract and recognizable. It’s this tension that gives the work its uncanny charge.
I assisted Tony Feher for three years before graduate school and learned so much from him. By simply being around him and his work, I grasped that an artist should not inflict himself too much on his materials but allow them to dictate how they should be used. You have to do what the material wants to do, not manipulate it as an instrument for your vision. This way of working seems open and generous, especially to the materials themselves. It provides the space for scrappy, humble plastic bags or styrofoam packaging to command a kind of dignity and integrity that would have previously been thought impossible. This seems a beautiful metaphor for a queer way of working—and living. For me, a queer outlook doesn’t attempt to conform every small thing, every oddball and underdog, into one mainstream way of being. However corny or idealistic it sounds, it allows the space for something or someone to be truly itself.
Following these queer lines, Claudia Schmuckli’s fantastic essay which begins the book provides much needed insight into the historical context in which Feher’s work was made—specifically the AIDS crisis in New York in the 1990s. Although Feher was highly involved with activist groups such as ACT-UP, his early pieces, with titles such as Decorations for My Funeral, 1990-1, offer a more personal reflection on a generation’s coming to terms with a tragic early mortality. Schmuckli’s essay also provides a way of looking at Feher’s oeuvre as a whole. His methods of scavenging and presenting delicate detritus become a poetic response to dealing with loss, and one can see the resulting sculptures alternately as stand-ins for bodies themselves or shrines for those departed.
While the work can be seen as melancholic, it’s important to note that, especially in the gorgeous photographs in this book, the pieces are also vivacious and funny! Tony Feher is a fabulous colorist, and the photographs in the book highlight this: the plates are pure eye candy. Part of this is because Feher rarely applies color, rather he imbues the pieces with color. Whether by dying water or using readymade plastic, color becomes an essential part of the piece’s being, and the resulting images appear to pulsate and glow from within.
While the photos are vivid and beautiful, and the pieces are alternately humorous or melancholy, one of the things that struck me most while paging through the book is that the work remains unapologetically difficult. Take a piece such as Colored Group, 1992, which is comprised solely of seven assorted glass jars and bottles. The economy of means, the directness of this piece, perhaps even the difficulty of accepting that that’s art–all these things make the piece completely radical. Oddly enough, it reminded me of the song Is That All There Is?—most famously sung by Peggy Lee. In the ballad, Lee lists events, starting with banal things like a fire or the circus, describing how the initial terror or joy gives way to a kind of disappointed ennui which she describes in the chorus: is that all there is? She goes on to major events such as falling in love, death, and life itself, and the song (much like my reading of Feher’s work) is alternately funny and melancholic. So, for me, Colored Group, measuring about 10 inches high, packs a lot of punch: it seems to look up at you and definitively say, “Yes, that’s all there is.”
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Claudia Schmuckli, Russell Ferguson, Tony Feher, Tony Feher, (Gregory R. Miller & Co./Blaffer Art Museum (2012)
Images: pages 60 & 61 of Tony Feher. Photos shot by David Gilbert.
Video: Peggy Lee, Is that all there is? (youtube.com/watch?v=LCRZZC-DH7M)