During the height of the pandemic, with businesses closed and people sequestering themselves in self-imposed quarantine, artist Kate Feiffer was busy creating communities of her own imagination. In a selection of recent pen and ink and mixed-media drawings now on display at the M.V. Film Center through July 17, Feiffer brings groups of dozens of diverse people (and, in some cases, animals) together in a series of marvelous drawings brimming with activity, fun little details, and — most importantly for the artist — a sense of connectivity.
The show is called “Connect the Dots,” and the majority of the multi-figure images include the element of multiple random dots interspersed among Feiffer’s whimsical little figures. As she explains, “I was interested in the idea that we’re all so connected through social media and yet so disconnected. In this age of globalization and social media connectivity — where six degrees of separation is surely down to four or five — we are more connected than ever, and yet, much less so. We are politically divided, and isolated from each other because of the pandemic. The dots are not connecting. Plus, I like the way dots interplay with the line drawings.”
Included in the exhibit are a number of drawings featuring mermaids. These are from a series titled “Middle-Aged Mermaid Convention,” which Feiffer completed prior to the days of isolation, when her fantasy world showed a brighter, more colorful outlook.
“I started doing these before the pandemic,” says Feiffer of the mermaid series. “Mostly because I wanted to experiment with a bold color palette, and mermaid tails seemed like a good vehicle to use. A lot of women feel that once you reach a certain age, you are no longer seen in our society. This seems certainly to be the case with mermaids. I am no mermaid expert, but if the villainous octopus-tailed mer-creature Ursula [from the Disney movie ‘The Little Mermaid’] is what becomes of mermaids when they reach middle age, that’s quite a statement. And so I decided to bring the middle-aged mermaids (definitely not Ursulas) together to hash out their issues and celebrate being middle-aged, as we should. Admittedly, during the dark days of the pandemic, I put this series aside, but returned to it this winter, although with some ambivalence.”
Although she says that “the color got drained out of me during the pandemic,” the primarily black-and-white images from that period are just as playful and carefree as their aquatic counterparts. In these images (which Feiffer has given quite literal titles — i.e., “58 people, 5 birds and a dog”) her little people, arranged in a grid pattern, are seen variously frolicking, dancing, exercising, drawing, hugging, kissing, and just generally enjoying life. While the human figures are rendered simply in black ink, hints of color in flowers, birds, umbrellas, and dots can be found punctuating the drawings with bright touches. There’s nothing the least bit dreary about these picturesque tableaux. The spots of color enliven the images without distracting from the detail.
In a bit of a departure from her other work, Feiffer expresses herself in a more surrealist way with the piece titled “Much Ado …” This image plays with proportion and placement, mixing up people with buildings, plants, creatures, and household objects to create a fun allegory of sorts. Throughout the painting, Feiffer has placed hidden spots with pieces of the text from the Shakespeare comedy that lends its name to the piece.
Another image that shows a somewhat different direction for the artist, “Connect the Dot Talk,” features nine larger figures — created with simple black lines — their forms winding among one another to create a wavelike pattern. The figures are all in conversation with each other, speech bubbles filled with numbered dots as in an actual connect-the-dots puzzle. This drawing shows a wonderful sense of flow and use of line to create a kind of Hirschfeld-esque image that is both representational and quite lyrical in its focus on form and design.
Feiffer likens her style to “doodling” — allowing for the unconscious to play a part in the creation process. “I am forever intrigued by what comes out of the pen or pencil when people are doodling,” she says. “Not in a Rorschachy, analytical way, but because of the line the pen spits forth when you aren’t thinking about what you’re drawing. The line of a doodle is completely authentic. It can be simple or agitated, round or ragged; whatever it is that emerges shares tone quality, authenticity.”
Although there may be a good deal of spontaneity in Feiffer’s work, the resulting images are clearly the output of a skilled artist with intention — in the case of the “Connect the Dots” series — sharing a story of people and their relationships to each other.
“Everybody has a story,” she says, “and the lines of people, the seemingly random images in my paintings, are all telling stories. I hope people who look at these pieces will find their stories in them.”