Paul Kotula Projects, Detroit, Michigan March 1 – April 5, 2008
Gertrude Stein’s line that there is “no / repetition / only insistence” means we can revisit but never duplicate an experience, and suggests the extraordinary range of responses such revisits can generate. Among them: soothing (simple rhythms of lullabies and nursery rhymes); dull (the endless acts of sex and violence detailed in the novels of Marquis de Sade); communal (holiday and religious traditions); torment (the question, according to Freud, plaguing the obsessive compulsive’s hand washing, counting, retracing steps is: am I dead or alive?); exhilaration (the detective solving a case by returning again and again to the same facts and, at last, learning new ways to view the material). Brenda Goodman’s paintings, bold combinations of upheaval and discipline, contain some of all of the above. They function as a sort of visual anaphora (carrying back) to loaded past events, or scenes, and evoke a complex string of emotion-laden verbs such as hound, harass, console, hide, expose, hurt, want.
I first saw her work in the 80’s and was struck by paintings like “Jungle Flute,” with its harmonies of shapes and fall colors (auburn, yellow, red). They evoked, for me, witchy Halloween marches, Mardi Gras, midnight Carnival (Fasching) processions so popular in European cities like Basel, Switzerland. At the time I was reading Monique Wittig’s novel, Les Guerillas, which is, among other things, a call for women to detach from existing categories and construct new forms of identity and language. I had underlined these words in the book, “Let those who call for a new language first learn violence.” I went home from Goodman’s studio and penciled her name next to the previously marked sentence.
Violence has been a consistent element of Goodman’s work, including the self-portraits she is best known for, with their ghostly blend of bulk and delicacy. Her renderings of large ungainly bodies, small heads, thin fragile-looking arms and small graceful hands against her trademark textured and kinetic backgrounds unflinchingly, surgically, detail elements that register as deeply personal. They mesmerize. Goodman can be horrific and breathtakingly lovely at the same time.
She makes much of the fact that her works are reality-based. In a recent interview she asserts, “My work is about reality not irony…I do everything I can not to distance myself from the work.” She references the strong technical training she received at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, known for its emphasis on technique (which helps account for her skill with paint), and she incorporates elements of her life as a gay woman, born in Detroit, into her work: a childhood accident resulting in hearing loss; a move to New York in her 30’s; coming home for a time, watching her mother die a terrible death, wanting to physically touch her, her deep regret at not touching her.
The newest paintings suggest less interest in documenting the past, and seem to head in a different direction. Their depictions of emotional release (or scenes where release can be enacted) include a number of portraits of women with open mouths. These mouths are not like Goya’s (emoting, chewing, guzzling) or Bacon’s screaming orifices. These mouths are portals for pure tonal discharge: ringing hymns, chants, or ballads. Other new works are nearly void of figures (they might contain one little tiny body) and seem like set designs for a play, opera, or dream sequence: sites where packed-down emotional baggage can be expressed, acted out; sites where wounds can start to scab over, if not completely heal. Goodman seems, at this point in her long, stellar career, to address the potential of dramatic exercise, recreation, song—albeit somber forms of them—as a way to face pain. This is a good thing; she owes it to herself to let loose.