JOHN DAVIS GALLERY, HUDSON, NEW YORK | JULY 22 – AUGUST 15, 2010
“Flesh,” Willem de Kooning famously said, “was the reason oil paint was invented.”
A down-to-earth artist if there ever was one, he recognized the corruptibility of flesh, and to represent it one needed a susceptible material. Not surprisingly, conventional practice and thinking focus on the radiant and beautiful. Always eager to believe in an illusion, society prefers works in which time’s pressure is given, at most, a passing nod. In fact, when it comes to the subject of time, it is worth bearing in mind that photographers get a free pass, while painters don’t. Take Nicholas Nixon, for example, who has stated that his photographs of the Brown sisters, babies, and the elderly are about the “life cycle.”
Brenda Goodman works in a narrower register, where shared experience is never the point. She neither evokes the “life cycle” nor situates her work in the social domain, particularly as dominated by the selling and consuming of glamour. Rather, she confronts the inevitable toll of daily life without becoming maudlin or portraying herself as a victim. In Loss (2009), a dead cat lies on its back near the middle of the painting’s bottom edge, its legs sticking straight, and its upside-down head staring out at the viewer. This cat is too stiff to have its tummy rubbed—the position is funny and horrifying, reminding me of the way a child employs an exaggerated pose to “play dead.” Only the cat isn’t playing and someone has to remove the body. We have to become intimate with death, which the paint’s tactility underscores. At the same time, she makes a startling equation between the dead cat and the painting; one can remove the corpse and painting (a tactile surface) from a room, but the memory of them, which is visceral, is harder to get rid of.
I suspect Goodman believes that oil paint was invented because of the vulnerable body, and, recognizing that pigments are historically derived from colored dirt, minerals, and biological sources, she always acknowledges that connection in her work. Her palette is dominated by earth tones. The crusty textures, accumulated patches of paint, and runny slicks evoke scarred flesh, decay, dissolution, and the detritus that gathers in anyone’s life. Beyond this, what I think Goodman wants to do, and yet knows is nearly impossible to do, is to make paint into something more than a synecdoche for the inchoate responses we muster in the face of time’s unavoidable devastations. That her work never comes across as stylish or reducible to a sign, which is the fate that has befallen Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893), is one measure of how well she has succeeded. It also helps explain why she has flown under the radar for much of her career. We want to screen out the inevitable toll time will take, and prefer art that transports us away from ourselves.
There were a number of times when I kept looking because of the way Goodman handled the paint and simultaneously felt the urge to turn away for the very same reason. That tension was one of the many strengths of this powerful exhibition. This was not because the subject was shocking, but because it was familiar, even when I couldn’t name it, as in the paintings collectively titled “Troubled Waters.”
In “Troubled Waters 2” (2009), two forms seem to be facing each other. The pinkish one on the left, which is cropped by the painting’s edge, resembles the head of a sperm whale, while the other, blackish one has what appears to be a sutured scar running along where the mouth or belly might be, as well as a cluster of thick black ovals near its top edge, with thin red paint “bleeding” from the ovals that cascades down the form’s right side. “Troubled Waters 2” refuses to become a simple story which can be easily consumed and quickly dispensed with. Rather, the painting compels us to reflect upon what we are looking at, and consider, for example, its amorphous forms. Are they heads or bodies or, what I suspect, both? As both, it reminds us that the mind and body are inseparable, however much we might fantasize otherwise.
Goodman’s paintings run the gamut from abstraction to representation. In a number of untitled works, squid-like and embryonic forms jostle with linear nets and tentacle-like trails of paint. In others, such as “Self Portrait 9” (2005), Goodman depicts an elevated view of a heavy, close-cropped nude holding a brush and staring at her painting. The visual scale of the figure in relationship to nearby things (stretched canvases) and the painting’s physical size (50 by 36 inches) make the room feel immense without diminishing the nude’s physical presence. Formally, this is not an easy thing to do. This seems to be Goodman’s lifelong goal—to address the naked self.
Here, I would like to make a comparison between her work and Philip Guston’s late paintings, which Goodman acknowledges as an influence, because it reveals something about her singular achievement. Guston depicted heads with an oversized eye; hairy, gangly legs; feet; and hands, but not the torso. He wasn’t comfortable in his body. Goodman isn’t ashamed of her body, however, and depicts it from the front and back. Perhaps it’s time we recognize how much more daring a number of women artists are than their male contemporaries. I am thinking specifically of artists such as Goodman and Catherine Murphy, as well as Ellen Altfest, Katherine Bradford, Nicole Eisenman, Dana Schutz, and Amy Sillman, all of whom rejected the domain of glamour and media images that preoccupy much of the art world. For them, Andy Warhol was not a god in whose footsteps they needed to follow.