In 2015, I flew to Detroit to see a large survey of paintings and drawings by Brenda Goodman at the College of Creative Studies, with some works dating back to when she was a student there (1961-65). Michelle Perron, a longtime champion of the artist, organized the show. That exhibition, along with a survey exhibition of her works on paper at Paul Kotula Projects in nearby Fernwood, gave me a wider perspective on an artist whose trajectory over the past 45 years — when she first began exhibiting — is unlike anyone else’s. Central to this path is Goodman’s preoccupation with the body: as primordial form; as a damaged or wounded self; a ravenous psychic force; viscera and scarred skin.
From the beginning of her career, Goodman’s interest was in what lay behind appearances, the frantic and infernal forces that can possess us.
Since she first began exhibiting in 1973, she has moved between abstraction and figuration, while always rooting her work in the body and what it feels like to be inside her skin.
Between 1994 and 2011, she painted a series of self-portraits that constitute one of the most powerful and disturbing achievements of portraiture in modern art. Shame and shamelessness flood through her depictions of an overweight, naked woman standing alone in a cavernous studio, surrounded by her art, or in her close-ups of a starving creature cramming her maw with fistfuls of thick, scarred paint.
Since 2011, Goodman has transformed and synthesized aspects of her earlier work, as well as inspiration from such movements as Surrealism, Expressionism, and Symbolism, and artists as diverse as Hieronymus Bosch, Alfred Kubin and Philip Guston, into something recognizably hers. At the same time, the torment pulsing through Goodman’s work seems to have loosened its grip on the artist. The results of these changes can be seen in her debut exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co, Brenda Goodman: In a Lighter Place (January 24–February 23, 2019).
The exhibition consists of works on paper measuring 6 by 8 inches and oil paintings on hollow-core wood panels ranging from 12 by 16 inches to the two-panel “Possibility of Age” (2018), which, at 80 by 144 inches, is the largest work the artist has ever done
Despite the difference in scale and support, what unites these two bodies of work is their scarred surfaces. In the 16 works on paper, Goodman uses an ice pick to incise the surface, while in the paintings she uses a linoleum cutter to score the wood.
In “Let the Match Begin” (2017), one of the strongest paintings in the exhibition, the artist has rubbed a black liquid medium into the largely vertical and horizontal incisions, creating a noticeably scarred skin. In “Dance” (2018), however, she has filled nearly all the incisions with pumice, so that painting’s surface is relatively smooth and unblemished. By determining where the incisions will appear (or not), the artist has turned what could have easily become a crutch or even a brand into just another option in her toolbox.
One reason she incises the surface is to start off with an active ground, which, in the tangle of crisscrossing lines, will offer up unexpected forms and configurations. The forms may be shaded to suggest a slightly convex volumetric surface, as in “Ta-Da” and “Wizard,” or flat and folded planes, as in “Meditative Moment,” or layered and interlocking sheets, as in “Rockin’ the Boat” (all works on paper dated 2018). As the different approaches of these works convey, Goodman has opened up a lot of possibilities for herself.
Sometimes, Goodman uses line as an outside border for her shapes, or to define divisions within an overall form. And yet, it is also clear that the artist is impulsive about her decisions and does not know what she will do in advance. Her bulbous shapes share something with biomorphic abstraction, but are more disquieting than the ones we find in the work of Hans Arp, for example, or Joan Miró. Partly, this is because the swollen forms in her works on paper feel rooted in Symbolism, channeling the macabre spirit of Alfred Kubin. The other reason is that scored surface, which rakes across most of her bulging shapes.
This is why the title of her exhibition, In a Lighter Place, should give pause to those who have followed her work. Given her scarred surfaces and her prior subject matter, what might a lighter place mean to the artist? It strikes me that one of the enduring strengths of this exhibition is the work’s resistance to being encapsulated in an overall narrative — something that was less true of Goodman’s exhibitions in recent years, a number of which I reviewed.
There is clearly a drama of some kind going on in many of the current paintings, though I don’t immediately feel as if I am looking at a headless creature or a disembodied head. There is often an encounter between two forms, but not one that I can name.
Look at all the different sections that make up the maroon, stalk-like form that rises along the left edge of “Dance” before veering off to the right — bending and widening, like a horn, across the width of the painting’s two stacked panels.
Goodman has divided the stalk into three distinct sections, which slow down our looking. The second section – with its incised surface — is divided into irregular geometric shapes, each identified by a different color. Three rounded black shapes — reminiscent of a stingray’s pectoral fins — extend from the widening column of colored sections, which are faintly reminiscent of a patchwork quilt or a harlequin’s costume.
The third section is pink, with a maroon band, the same color as the stalk, underscores the sense that the stalk is a single, multi-part entity. What flips the painting into another dimension is the thin layer of paint that appears to be streaming down from the solid pink section, dripping across the reddish-brown ground. What is this change that is taking place and why?
Compared with the work Goodman showed, mostly in Brooklyn, over the past few years, the current paintings are more abstract and less overtly figural. Rather than dominate the paintings with a single form, she disperses layered shapes across the surface, as in “Possibility of Age.”
The other change is the completeness with which she brings together her different methods of working a surface, from scoring to drips to washes to solid planes to impastos. By filling in some of the incisions, Goodman is able to juxtapose two different surfaces, as well as emphasize the painting’s status as an object, albeit a scarred one. Their resistance to narrative raises them into a new territory, one in which trauma does not seem to be the motivating force.
Brenda Goodman: In a Lighter Place continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co (530 West 22nd Street) through February 23.
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