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Krowswork Gallery presents new and historic paintings by a 94-year-old contemporary artist

Sylvia Fein, Crucial Eye, 2011. Egg tempera on board, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist and Krowswork Gallery, Oakland.

OAKLAND, CA.- Krowswork Gallery announces Surreal Nature, an exhibition of paintings by Sylvia Fein. Fein was born in 1919 and began painting as a teenager in her home state of Wisconsin. She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and there was part of an influential group of painters that included Marshall Glasier, Karl Priebe, John Wilde, Gertrude Abercrombie, and Dudley Huppler, who regularly showed work in the Midwest and in New York. Among this avant-garde group Fein's painting was considered particularly radical for its Surrealist imagery, feminist themes, and quattrocento-influenced use of egg tempera paint.

Fein traveled during World War II to Mexico, where she lived near Ajijic, working with a local women's cooperative and helping on a friend's farm, all while painting works for her first solo New York exhibition. That show took place in 1946 at Perls Gallery, one of the leading galleries for young painters at that time. Later that year her work was included in the 1946–47 Whitney Annual exhibition, along with artists like Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, and a young Jackson Pollock. Almost 65 years later, her painting has recently been re-presented and rediscovered through the exhibition In Wonderland which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum in 2012 and featured the work of Surrealist women artists from the 1940s and 50s working in North America.

Fein's early Surrealist work was openly narrative, focusing on issues of absence and longing during World War II, highlighting the absurdist aspects of world-wide warfare and emphasizing a feminine return to magical, natural power and sanctuary. A 1942–43 work titled The Lady with the White Knight features Fein and her husband dressed and situated in a land that resembles somewhere between a medieval forest and the Garden of Eden. Symbols of magic and an ancient spiritual world surround them, and yet their postures are distinctly modern and self-aware. On the front of the Knight's shimmering shirt is a heart patch into which is set an all-seeing eye, gazing out from the near center of the painting to the viewer, unblinkingly.

In 1947 Fein and her husband, William (Bill) Scheuber, who had returned from his service in the Pacific theater, moved from Mexico to the Bay Area of California, settling in the East Bay, first in Richmond, then East Oakland and later near Martinez, where she still lives. She continued to paint, showing frequently in San Francisco and New York but ultimately she disengaged from any art scene, preferring to paint privately in ways that allowed her to work for herself and not feel subjected to the trends of the day. One reviewer noted that as the work around her in the art world had gotten larger, Fein's delicate egg tempera work got smaller and more intimate in the 1950s and 60s.

Having taken a more than two-decade break from painting to write two books (Heidi's Horse and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking) Fein began to paint again in the early 2000s with a vengeance. She began a series of eyes that picks up where her early Surrealist work left off, but with a singular and intensive vision that feels of this time. Sometimes the eye stands alone—its pupil filled with magical figures or natural forms. In other works, it becomes integrated into swirling storms of color and wind—symbolizing either an earth-bound or cosmic destiny.

In three works that can be read as a trilogy of sorts, from 2010, 2011, and 2013, respectively, Fein's singular eye has relaxed its gaze to become a part of nature, integrated into a beautiful scene of spring bounty—with all the attendant wildness. In some way this is a return to her roots, where women's intuition and grace united in the beauty and transcendence of the natural world.

The exhibition concludes with Fein's most recent works—five paintings of trees, created in homage to her husband, Bill, who passed away in early 2013. These works are among the most moving passages of her career, composed of delicate but complex strokes that make up the strong trunks of vibrant trees, out of which poke feet or pairs of feet, representing the artist and her husband.

This expansive exhibition of work by Sylvia Fein spans more than seventy years of her oeuvre, but it is important to understand that this is a show of a contemporary painter. At age 94, Fein paints for several hours almost every morning. She isn't interested in the subject matter—it comes to her subconsciously and fluidly. For her, the emphasis is on the paint—egg tempera—which has been her steady companion since the beginning of her painting life. She is truly a master of this difficult technique. Fein's afternoons are spent tending her expansive garden and orchards, which include olive trees, grapes, and finger limes. As she herself notes: "I am 50 percent painter. The other half is a farmer."

The exhibition at Krowswork is a collaboration between the gallery, directed by Jasmine Moorhead, and independent curator and writer Travis Wilson, of Wilson Art Service. The show runs from January 18 to February 22, 2014.

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