Paintings and Metaphors: Sylvia Fein

You would think I would find it natural when someone says that a work of art is like a poem, but it took me until a recent visit to the Berkeley Art Museum to fully understand what that might mean. I was meeting a friend to have tea in the cafe upstairs, but came early to see a show I was told I shouldn't miss, the surrealist egg tempera paintings of Sylvia Fein. I was curious about the surrealist part, not so much interested that they were egg tempera, or that Fein was interested in the old guys (okay, Old Masters) Bosch or Breughel, who painted in that medium.

Then I saw the paintings. And I saw how those descriptions, those labels, did not draw me in because they were not deep enough. Yes, there are lots of paintings of eyes or eyeballs, so surrealist, check. Yes, they are painted in egg tempura, check. (Egg tempura is made by combining egg yolk with pigment rather than oil or acrylic polymer.) The descriptions do put the art in context, linking it with art history and they do give a suggestion of her creative process. But what else? What do the paintings do for the viewer? The work is colorful and luminous; it is abstract, yet it feels personal (personal was one adjective used in the brochure by Lawrence Rinder that accompanied the exhibit). (More info at the website here.) The sizes are mostly small, intimate, and she painted some miniatures as well.

Her subjects may be waves and trees and landscapes, but she is in them. Her hand was there. You can feel a presence. Each work also seems to stand for something else, and that is where metaphor appears. A metaphor is when one thing is both itself and another, conjuring an association and a conversation between the two. There is a little mystery in their relationship, both a gap and a connection that vibrates, and the feeling is often unnameable. A poem in itself is a metaphor. At least that is how I see it.

I met my friend, and we went upstairs for hot beverages. My friend is grieving and told me of wanting to make some art that was abstract, but that included a rendering of an object the loved one had made. A desire to make something personal, with meaning to the artist on one level, yet open enough, something others would appreciate and maybe like enough to buy. There is where it dawned on me: a poem, a metaphor. One thing is both one thing and another. I said to go see the Sylvia Fein show. There might be something inspirational there.

Fein turned one hundred years old in November, 2019. Although her art vision was formed in Madison, Wisconsin, she is a Bay Area resident, has been here since the 1950s, yet her vision is independent of any movement. She and her husband once had a boat, so she depicts much water and waves. They lived closer to our tan California hills than to the City, and she has olive trees, which might also explain why nature is prominent in her work. According to the brochure, Fein's husband died in 2013 and trees are symbols of him. A tree painting as a poem: itself and another.

And one last note: although they don't appear in the brochure images, the frames are very much a part of the picture. Two frames deep, as many as four deep, each a different color and texture and depth from low to high, they mesmerized me by how they drew my eye right in. As guides. Personal and luminous. At Berkeley Art Museum through March 1, 2020. (Hours are here.)

Birds Flying into the Face of a Storm, 1965
Sylvia Fein

Breakers, 1965
Sylvia Fein

Two Kitties in the Garden
Kitty in the Garden
Sylvia Fein

Ancient Frantoio Olive Tree, 2005
Sylvia Fein

Silent Moonlight Swim, 2018
Sylvia Fein