Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Death, Loss, Pain and Longing: Core themes abound in the profound work of Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman: Work 1990-2010 at John Davis Gallery

July 22 to August 15 2010
362½ Warren Street
Hudson, New York 12534
518 828 5907

Brenda Goodman, Hard Choice, 2009.  Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery
Brenda Goodman, Hard Choice, 2009. Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

This exhibition of oil paintings from the last two decades makes the discerning viewer long for a proper retrospective of Brenda Goodman’s oeuvre. The Detroit-born artist uses events, often painful and psychologically scarring, from her personal life, such as the tragic death of her partner’s son, the loss of a beloved pet, childhood ostracization and lifelong health issues, to influence her abstract inventions. Her combination of figuration and abstraction works seamlessly on conceptual and formal levels, and even when she focuses a specific composition on one or the other, the two stylistic approaches are never separate. The abstractness of the work is cohesive and consistent even in her more figural works and you will find surrogates for the human figure in all of the wholly abstract paintings in this exhibition. When Goodman is making paintings that have easily discernible forms in them, such as the artist sitting or standing naked in her studio studying and absorbed in the act of looking at her own paintings, as in her Self Portrait series, or the figures and weirdly illuminated environments found in her Singing series, we always feel as if the artist’s subjectivity is present in her layered and dense colors, carefully and subtly worked surfaces, and the distortions of space, perspective and form she utilizes.

Goodman creates imagery that is archetypal in the classic Jungian sense, without any literary pretensions or irony. Although her paintings are filled with specific references they are in no way obscure, uncommunicative or a form of therapy. The core experiences of all of our lives are still worth making art about, without resorting to ahistorical pastiche. Goodman’s art proves that if we excavate our emotional experiences by making a serious attempt to master tools and materials of one form or another through time, art works will emerge that will resonate with meaning for a wide swathe of viewers.

Goodman’s paintings are testament to the fact that all space, time, and events in paintings are virtual, that they exist in the mind and in imagination. The abstract forms and masses of lines she invents always suggest a figure or a head, and these appear to be resigned to whatever state of being they are in, be it sad or happy, or experiencing some transformation or tumultuous emotional upheaval. In her Troubled Waters series, for instance, an abstract blobby rock-cloud shape is a surrogate for the artist and other important people in her life, with disturbing stitches in the place of mouth or orifice to denote a face. Goodman’s work is a strong and individual member of a long line of paintings and sculptures that include anthropomorphized abstract shapes. Artists that Goodman has a kinship with include Arshile Gorky, Adolf Gottlieb, and Henry Moore.

Brenda Goodman, Crossing Over, 2009.  Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery
Brenda Goodman, Crossing Over, 2009. Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Four large, wonderful paintings from 2009-10 included here, Crossing Over, Burial, Loss, and Hard Choice, are abstract environments which could read either as interiors or exteriors. They are maps of painful emotions. In three of them, a large and dark looming shape commands the viewer’s attention, but the small figures, whether cat and human, which are positioned atop, beneath, or within them, are the driving forces of the images. The figures in these battered but not hopeless landscapes must contend with events and forces beyond their control. The subjectivity of the artist is mediated and not necessarily in charge. Accident and a lack of preliminary sketches on the part of the artist allow the process of painting itself to reveal things. But the triumph of expression is always clear in the sense that the humanoid forms have a dignity to them. There is no narrative element in these paintings, but the artist confronts herself again and again, and through the details of her life she reveals the struggles of human consciousness.

The light-filled and layered surfaces of her paintings make apparent how deeply the craft foundations of painting matter to Goodman. She loves to use a variety of traditional and non-traditional tools to achieve the perpetually revealing painterly terrains in which to immerse our eyes. She uses ice picks, Q-tips, metal spatulas, brushes and palette knives, and cake decorating tubes, as well as admixtures of wood ash of varying coarseness and oil paint to make the final images mysterious. The interplay of translucent washes and opaque smears leaves the viewer wondering how the paintings were made.

Goodman manages to create profound and moving worlds that touch on the core themes of death, loss, pain and longing, joy and celebration, self exploration and self discovery. Her depictions of ritualistic events, as found in paintings like Troubled Waters 4, 2009, often include processions of invented beings. Without being pretentiously philosophical or heavy-handedly literary, and avoiding clichés through sheer inventiveness, Goodman’s compositions tap into a collective consciousness that all of us can relate to. And it isn’t only the abstract forms in her paintings that appear animated or alive; each brushstroke and scrape and drip is infused with an animistic energy.

Brenda Goodman, Troubled Waters, 2009. Oil on wood, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery
Troubled Waters, 2009
Brenda Goodman, Loss, 2009. Oil on wood, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery
Loss, 2009
Brenda Goodman, Burial, 2010.  Oil on wood, 52 x 56 inches.  Courtesy of John Davis Gallery
Burial, 2010