Sylvia Fein: Surreal Nature


Sylvia Fein: Surreal Nature

By Mary Anne Kluth February 10, 2014

Sylvia Fein: Surreal Nature, a retrospective of paintings at Krowswork in Oakland, spans a boggling seventy years, showcasing the artist’s lifelong relationship with her chosen medium, egg tempera. Presented more like a museum exhibition than a commercial show, Surreal Nature includes a professionally produced video, A Delicious Battle, directed and edited by Robert Beier, that introduces nonagenarian Fein, her artwork, and her home, garden, and studio, creating an accessible context for the numerous works on display.1 The exhibition takes advantage of the divided spaces at Krowswork to group Fein’s works thematically and by rough time periods, letting viewers draw connections between the biographical information in the documentary and Fein’s episodic painting oeuvre.

Sylvia Fein. The Lady with the White Knight, 1942-43; egg tempera on board; 29 x 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Krowswork, Oakland. Photo: Nick Pishvanov.

One such biographical detail is that the couple in standout early painting The Lady With the White Knight (1942-43) is Fein and her husband William Scheuber; it was made while he was away fighting in World War II, which adds a layer of symbolism to the detail Fein renders in her subjects. Depicted with the flat specificity of early Renaissance figures of Adam and Eve, both the man and woman defy historical categorization; their clothing and the animals and objects they carry recall alchemical imagery, meant as an esoteric code rather than a literal representation. Although the painting is adeptly composed, Fein’s attention to the surface, drawing in individual pebbles on the ground and the shimmering links of the man’s chain mail, contributes to a sense that making the work was cathartic—that the laborious task of rendering the knight’s armor was in some ways more interesting to the artist than the eventual picture it became. This hyper attention to detail has a spooky effect, heightened by Fein’s inclusion of the evil eye, a symbol she returns to again much later in life.

A striking instance of this reappearance occurs in the more recent work Eye Sees the End of the World (2010), which is largely an abstract color-field work, with dynamic layers of green, blue, and yellow pigments, and a stylized yellow eye in the upper-right quadrant. The image brings to mind satellite images of the ocean, diagrams of hurricanes, fantasy novels, and pictures of deep space. Several of Fein’s later works, such as Twin Eyes in the Sky (2010) and Green Eyed Star (2010), embody this oscillating tension between representation and materialist abstraction, similar to the works of Bay Area painter Kim Anno.

Sylvia Fein. Eye Sees the End of the World, 2010; egg tempera on board; 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Krowswork, Oakland. Photo: Nick Pishvanov.

In addition to the cosmic color fields, the show includes several imaginative landscapes, and works inspired by American decorative folk art—an impressive variety of subjects. A true pleasure of the exhibition, and a mark of its success as a retrospective, is the opportunity to trace developing threads, such as a particular symbol, subject matter, or technique, through various works over long periods of time. Together with the video, the paintings in Surreal Nature offer a comprehensive portrait of Fein and her life as an artist.

Sylvia Fein: Surreal Nature is on view at Krowswork, in


, through February 22, 2014.


  1. Born in 1919 in Wisconsin, Fein studied art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and was particularly interested in early Renaissance painting. She became associated with a group of American Surrealist painters before moving to Mexico during World War II, and then to California. Her work was well received initially, showing in New York in two Whitney Annual exhibitions and in Germany, among other places, but between 1973 and 2003, she stopped painting to pursue gardening and writing.

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