Rachel Feinstein | This Naughty Body Is Going To Last Forever
Like many other 19th-century fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson’s"The Angel" begins with the death of a child. We as readers are never told why this child has popped their clogs, but if we learned readers were allowed a guess, we would safely assume scarlet fever.
Either way, an angel swoops down and takes the dead youth on a tour of their favorite playfields to pick flowers (wild or otherwise) to smuggle beyond the gates of heaven into the gardens of the afterlife.
While I skimmed over the story, I came away with a wonderful silver lining: the idea of flying to fond places of our past for our final hurrah as we are whisked to an afterlife. And so, the first question I ask fairy tale obsessed artist Rachel Feinstein is—to what cherished fields would you fly, and what wildflowers would you smuggle to your afterlife?
“We’d go swimming in these weird backyard ponds as kids in Coral Gables and we could feel alligators swimming around our legs.” Feinstein pauses and exclaims, “once animal services even pulled out a ten-foot alligator!” The phone crackles during our bicoastal conversation and I imagine her as a three-foot child beside a ten-foot alligator. Then I imagine her strawberry-red curls and kind eyes in her post-bomb-cyclone home of New York City while I watch squirrels on telephone lines in an unsurprisingly sunny Los Angeles.
And don’t worry, I didn’t forget to ask her about the flowers. The first flora Feinstein would take for her bouquet to heaven are orchids, from those gator infested times.
The 46-year-old artist recently returned home to New York after opening a solo exhibit titled “Secrets” at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. The show features eight Victoria Secret runway inspired angel statues, a giant majolica, and eleven paintings, on mirrors, which collage Los Angeles mega mansions with 18th century wallpaper showing historical 1%ers: governors, hunting hounds, rowboaters, and maidens strumming mandolins. The exhibit is the next pearl in Feinstein’s chain of international shows that began with her first solo endeavor in 1999 at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York.
When Feinstein begins to tell me about the second place she would visit on her farewell flight, I am imagining the angel that is guiding her is “Icicles” one of her eight angels on display at the Gagosian. The Angel is human sized, a little less slender than most Victoria Secret angels, but mittened and ear-muffed and confident.
“Being there on my wedding day in the parrot jungle again would be pretty amazing,” Feinstein says. “All my bridesmaids had these 1970s Stepford Wife-type dresses that were custom made by my friend Lucy Barns. I had synchronized swimmers swimming with pink flamingos.” Feinstein now approaches her 20th anniversary on Valentine’s Day with accomplished painter John Currin, who she met shortly after graduating from Columbia College in New York City.
Between then and now, she has published books documenting her many shows, made paper castles for a Marc Jacobs fashion show, walked for Tom Ford, and rose to fame in the art world as one of the most talented artists in two mediums, while facing judgement from the New York art community for her revelry. Oh yes, she also has three children: two sons, Francis and Hollis, and a daughter, Flora.
But the flowers! Which ones would she pluck from that wild ornithological wedding? The answer is not flowers at all, but a handful of macaw feathers.
Feinstein originally began working on her angel sculptures for “Secrets” about two and a half years ago, after printing out and amassing over 3,000 images of Victoria Secret models on the catwalk. It was the first time in a long time that she delved into more aggressive and female body-centric work since she found her passion for sculpture in college under the influence of incredible female artists and professors like Kiki Smith, Ursula Von Rydingsvard, and Judy Pfaff.
“I got into modeling in the 80s in Miami when a lot of the famous catalogue modeling was starting—Calvin Klein, Versace. I was in Italian Vogue and many others. I got to travel all over Europe as a teenager in the summers, which was pretty incredible. It allowed me the opportunity to see art and culture and I got to escape from Miami, where at the time there was no ballet or art museum.”
It was during her early work in sculpture, under her fabled mentors, that her frustration for the modeling world came out. “I started to do this really aggressive female sculpture of casts of my body, vaginas coming out of my mouth, and my breasts, really wild and kind of crazy stuff. And it think it may have been in retaliation against the modeling world—being young and beautiful but feeling like people were using me for it,” she tells me, a bit of residual rage still detectable. But it soon fades in the face of a happier memory. “But then right away I met my husband out of school, and I wasn’t angry anymore. It was love.”
Now some of that old anger is back, manifested in eight avenging angels: Fireworks, Tourist, Butterfly, Ballerina, Bandleader, Feathers, Icicles, and—my favorite—Spats. They wear outrageous lingerie, electric green pumps, snow costumes, top hats, and garters.
Feinstein is amazed by the Victoria's Secret fashion show. She believes a well done fashion show is the epitome of art, “It’s like being in an opera, a ballet, a film, a concert, a painting, all of the elements are all slashed in and out.” Nevertheless, she is perplexed by the spectacle: “You feel embarrassed as as a woman watching it, but it’s so damn good. It is again the idea about fairy tales—a duality of itself. Is it empowerment or debasement?”
8 out of 10 Americans believe in angels and Rachel Feinstein is one of them. “I think there have been moments in my life where there seems like someone is protecting or watching me in a very profound way.”
Whether Feinstein believes in Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Spats, or Gisele Bundchen, the idea of angels offers her protection, whether from pond gators or ruthless New York art critics or the objectifying eye. And so, when we have popped our clogs and pushed up our daisies, we will be swept across our favorite refuges and fields. Warm South Floridian backyards, parrot jungles full of flamingos and swimmers, and Feinstein’s third location, Long Pond on Mt. Desert in Maine, “the type of place where vikings or dinosaurs might be.”
Rachel Feinstein’s bouquet for the aether: orchids, moss, and macaw feathers.
Written by Miles Griffis