Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rosemary Feit Covey at the Art League

Cudlin installing the zero projectI've been following the career of master printmaker Rosemary Feit Covey for years now.

And for years I have been mesmerized by not only her technical skill but also by her powerful and often shocking imagery.

Over the years I've also seen Rosemary do something that my good bud Jeffry Cudlin likes: she keeps pushing and redefining the genre of printmaking to the point that she can no longer be categorized and labeled simply as a printmaker.

In fact, since I brought Cudlin into the discussion, I submit as evidence of my point the exhibition that she had at the Arlington Arts Center (where Cudlin is curator) a while back.

Rosemary Feit CoveyBy the way, the gent in that cherry picker installing that massive work of art by Rosemary Feit Covey around the Arlington Arts Center is Cudlin, the Center's curator and the City Paper's chief art critic.

Enough of Cudlin.

But even knowing the enviable artistic reserves of this artist I was not prepared for what she has done with the work currently on display at the Art League Gallery, inside the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria.

Let me tell you early in this discussion: this is the best art show that I have ever seen at the Art League Gallery; ever.

At the Art League exhibition, Rosemary has two distinct sets of artworks that once again move printmaking to a new place: one is a set of "peep boxes" and the second is a set of lighted wall installations.

The peep show boxes line up in the center of the gallery, and at first seem a bit quizzical until one realizes what they are: Feit Covey tells us that "in the 18th and 19th Centuries peep show viewing was a popular and innocent form of street entertainment, developing into toy theaters. Using lenses and mirrors, an interior world could be created by peering into the mysterious box. She adds that the "term Peep Show ultimately came be to most closely associated with viewing pornographic films and live sex shows."

In her peep show box series, Feit Covey smartly marries the disquieting secrecy of the act of peeping into the box with the moist trapped sexuality brought about by the contemporary connotation of the term “Peep Show."

She does this by offering us innocent looking Victorian-era type peep show boxes in nice oak colors.

When we bend down and peep into them, we spy a set of suggestive, rather than overtly sexual, engravings. The objectification of the women in the imagery has not reached its climax yet, to be a bit coarse on the issue here.

And yet, by simply placing the print inside a box, she forces us into the tingly role of voyeur and peeper. The height of the stands where the boxes rest also force one to bend down in order to steal a surprisingly clear and well lit glimpse of a set of 10 suggestive etchings.

On the walls Feit Covey has a series of back lit boxes that are lined with dozens and dozens of strips of etchings. The appearance is that of a photographic process in the development stage.

It is a hypnotic installation. We are attracted at first, like moths to the light, to peer close at the imagery that dangles, like negatives in a pornographer's darkroom, inside each back lit box. The engravings are printed on Japanese papers and phone book pages, and then the vertical strips are encased in an encaustic medium.

The subjects on the strips, a young woman and a much older man, play a sexual drama that is riveting and disturbing. Some people, Feit Covey relates, have been offended by what is depicted on the strips, which all through the scenes barely restrain a growl of controlled sexual violence clearly hidden under the surface of the two subjects.

The old man is using the young woman as a captive sexual toy; there's a sharp hint of restrained danger in the images. "They are a real couple," she related to me a while back when I first saw this new series of work being produced. "She is much younger than him, and they have this sexual relationship based on routines and scenarios such as these."

Throw the element of reality into the disturbing imagery and it adds a whole new element of peeping into the dark sexual melodramas of the unusual couple. "They are quite in love with each other," she adds.

I force myself not to think ordinary thoughts. The wholesome and attractive woman and the decaying, wizened old man have discovered a sexual formula that bridges their huge age gap with a slippery and dangerous rope bridge.

In narrating their story, and in bringing the narration out of the mat and frame of the two dimensionality of intaglio etchings, Feit Covey has delivered a self contained installation that reinvents the world of the photographer in terms of the tools of the trade of the printmaker.

In continuing to bring the print out of the frame, and relocating it where it is not just a geographical move but a psychological transformation, she has achieved a singularly unique new direction for this most traditional of genres.

In this Art League show, Feit Covey has also set a new standard for that gallery and a opened up a whole new road for the Torpedo Factory.

In fact, after this show, the usual labels affixed to the kind of art that most people associate with the Torpedo Factory artists no longer sticks. Not that they ever applied to this talented artist.

The exhibition runs through April 15, 2010.