Tony Feher’s practice is deeply personal, culled from all the things, people, places, and events that have defined his life for more than half a century. And yet its manifestation is such that it speaks to all who come within the reach of his sculptures and installations. This immediacy is due to an essentialism of form and materials driven to extremes, a reductive impulse that cuts to the heart of things and ideas.
Feher is a self-described archeologist of his own life. His enterprise is in many ways an effort to claim a place in history for the common man by providing cultural referents that will lay the groundwork for archeologists of the future. Recent international sculptural production often places a confrontational, sometimes even antagonistic, emphasis on dissonance and ambiguity, increasing as much as reflecting the disconcerting and occasionally infuriating uncertainty of our times. In stark contrast, Feher’s work stands out as an oddly optimistic ode to hope. Its power to move us lies in the artist’s desire to carve out moments of profound solace and quietude, to restore order and beauty where there is chaos and ugliness, and to celebrate the power of creativity as humanity’s most powerful weapon and achievement.
Feher’s art can be initially challenging in its apparent ordinariness, in particular when it comes to the nature of his materials. Some of this has to do with the fact that Feher’s works are mostly made up of objects that generally play a passing role in our lives repurposed for aesthetic effect. Feher selects the elements for his sculpture with utmost care and restraint; despite their generic character and ready availability, in his hands they become specific. He often lives with materials for a long time, finally selecting them for their singular formal qualities and potentialities. Feher doesn’t seek so much to transform as to accentuate the inherent characteristics of his artistic tools, to enable us to truly see and appreciate their value and beauty, or simply to see and appreciate things differently and anew. The deceptive casualness and simplicity of Feher’s gestures cloak a discriminate precision that lends credence to the truism that the appearance of effortlessness is often the hardest-won effect to achieve.
Feher’s formal and conceptual vocabulary freely draws on historicized sculptural practices ranging from the early-twentieth-century readymade and assemblage to minimal and postminimal strategies of the 1960s and ’70s. But Feher wears history lightly and uses familiar conceptual strategies for aesthetic ends. So while the work is rich with allusions to famous precursors such as Duchamp, Carl Andre, and Robert Irwin, Feher’s fundamental concerns are of a different nature. Having come of age in an intellectual climate dominated by an overwhelming sense of endangerment due in no small part to the discovery of AIDS, Feher, opted for a humanism grounded in contemporaneity, proudly imbuing his work with a sense of vulnerability, transience, and emotion that is firmly anchored in and concerned with the politics of his time.
This humanist resonance vacillates between tenderness and cruelty, charm and edge, wit and seriousness. Feher himself is no stranger to harsh realities. In 1989 his life was threatened by a rare genetic condition, Meckel’s diverticulum, which manifested itself through excessive internal bleeding. The thrill of being a survivor was cut short six weeks later when he was diagnosed as HIV positive. Fortunately, being asymptomatic due to new drug therapies, Feher evaded the death sentence that took many of his friends and colleagues, and instead turned the diagnosis into a productive source of energy that provides the subtext for many a work. While he was an active member of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and a frequent participant in exhibitions dedicated to or dealing with AIDS or queer identity, and his condition and sexual identity have informed his work ever since, it tends not to be necessarily and exclusively about either. Instead, Feher has become the master of subtle messaging.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1956, Feher was brought up in Corpus Christi, Texas and earned a BA from the University of Texas, Austin. He lives in New York.
- Claudia Schmuckli and The Des Moines Art Center