It's no surprise that the Richmond Art Center galleries barely contain the ambitious breadth of Oakland artist Bella Feldman. After all, a 50-year survey of her work travels from the growling, mad-dog inspiration of Hitler's radio broadcasts to a Bronx department store-funded college education to a battle against male-centric staffing in academia.
Still, it works.
"From the moment I visited her studio, I could see her work in our galleries," says Emily Anderson, the show's curator, recalling a Feldman piece she chose for RAC's 75th anniversary show in 2011.
The 85 pieces in the new exhibit were selected by a small team consisting of Feldman, her longtime assistant J.P. Long, Anderson and RAC executive director Ric Ambrose. In works grand in scale and intimate in expression that use fiberglass, steel, glass, wood, paint and mixed-media collage, Feldman has carved a bold position in the landscape of California art.
Her early "Architectonic" constructs -- large, free-standing sculptures with doomed or inaccessible stairways leading to nowhere -- offer clues to the full-blown anxiety and dark, dangerous humor of her subsequent "War Toys" series. These works, triggered by the Gulf War and often purposefully small scale to create a sense of godlike superiority in the viewer, bristle with angst, yet delight with their mocking titles.
"Kapow" is a squiggle-filled glass orb on a suction cup-armed steel prosthetic; "War Horse" is a distorted tricycle whose arched steel neck curves into the cry of a single, suspended glass tear. The steel and glass "Flask Series" demonstrates Feldman's craftsmanship and dexterous melding of materials in seductive, organic vessels inspired by Turkish lanterns. The belted "Sumo" gets a sturdy laugh for its instant recognizability, while "Spring's" posh glass posterior is elegant, provocative and absurd as it dangles in its lacey-steel thong.
Feldman's paintings and collages reveal an artist in constant search of the marriage between materials and her roving imagination. At 83, she shows few signs of slowing down. She spends a portion of each year in a 9-by-9 foot office shared with her German partner of 11 years, which prompts her to joke: "My parents were Polish Jews. I dreamed about being captured by the Germans. Oddly enough, I've paired up with one, so I guess they caught me after all!"
As a result of that pairing, Feldman rediscovered painting. These pieces, along with the engraved glass plates of the "Out of Order" series, pick up the storm of war machinery and slice it into cubist, surreal portrayals vibrating with 20th century traditions and 21st century psychology. Far from the cool abstract of most contemporary conceptual art, Feldman's paintings grind, groan, giggle and gracefully demonstrate the gift springing from her annual confinement.
An interview as she finishes a painting she hopes to include in the show, begins with an admission.
"I'm intense. I always thought my work wasn't didactic, but then I realized my work was anxious. It was based on pessimism that humans would fail and optimism that some organism would arise," she says. "Black humor helps me survive."
Her parents, nearly illiterate, but hardworking Polish immigrants who she says didn't see the purpose of sending a daughter to college, shaped her artistic psyche.
Huddled in the family's three-room Bronx apartment, worrying about relatives lost to the Nazis, Feldman learned about fear, racism and class divisions. But she also discovered art and, latching onto a gifted friend, sketched her way into Harlem's High School of Music and Art. Working five nights a week and Saturdays in a department store, Feldman put herself through college and eventually began what is now a 30-year teaching career.
"I'm largely self-taught," Feldman says. "I teach the way I would like to have been taught. I get students to understand the underpinnings of what they want to say. Even the most formal person has those. I try to get them to be both creator and critic."
Feldman believes the best art doesn't arrive in complete solitude. She's worked with assistants since 1965 and says, beyond the physical practicality of having help while welding large pieces, the fluid exchange of ideas is essential.
"I'm the chief designer of my work; I'm engaged, even addicted, but group challenge is liberating."
What: Bella: A 50-year survey of the work of Bella Feldman
When: Opens Sept. 14; reception with the artist from 4-6 p.m. on Sept. 21
Where: Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Ave.
Information: Visit www.therac.org