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I want to believe that this is the beginning of the art world’s real and enduring appreciation of Brenda Goodman’s hard-won achievement. This year, she was one of five recipients of an Arts and Letters Award in Art from the Academy of Arts and Letters, signifying that a committee of her contemporaries has singled out her latest paintings, three of which were on display in the Academy’s Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts, as exceptional. In 2014, she had an exhibition at John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York (July 17 –August 10, 2014), which a number of younger painters, such as Paul Behnke and Brett Baker, called attention to. Currently, there is her exhibition Brenda Goodman: New Work at Life on Mars (March 20 – April 19, 2015).
In thinking about her career, and the imagery and subject matter that she has brought into her work – none of it easy – I thought of the following artists: Hieronymous Bosch; Carlo Carra; Leonora Carrington; Jean Dubuffet; James Ensor; Goya; Alfred Kubin. She has had a long interest in what lies behind appearances, in the demonic and grotesque forces percolating beneath the surface.
Goodman’s series of “Self-Portraits,” which she did between 1994 and 2011, constitute a gripping, harrowing body of work, a triumphant achievement by a contemporary painter. Her depictions of an overweight, naked woman, often standing in what seems to be a cavernous studio surrounded by paintings, are unsettling, tender and vulnerable. In her close-ups of a ravenous, creature’s head, through a seamless merging of thick, scarred paint and grotesque imagery, Goodman made it viscerally evident that she believed the monstrous was everywhere, including in herself. In these paintings, Goodman is self-revelatory without the slightest trace of embarrassment, nor does she attempt to solicit the viewer’s sympathy – further testament to her toughness as an artist. By comparison, particularly in his later work, Francis Bacon often comes off as theatrical and contrived. This is never the case with Goodman.
In her recent paintings, which look like no one else’s, Goodman has both synthesized and transformed aspects of all her earlier periods. She has also added new ways of applying paint, with a vocabulary that includes impasto surfaces; preternatural forms; geometric shapes; figuration; abstraction; paint dripped from a bottle; compressed space; unstable figure-ground relationships; drawing in paint.. She has internalized facets of Surrealist, Expressionist, Symbolist and geometric artists until they are recognizably hers.
The ability to bring some combination of these possibilities into play time after time speaks to her ambition and inventiveness; it also helps to account for the differences we see from painting to painting. In her work, an open-ended process becomes synonymous with an open-ended narrative. She finds the painting in the doing. The results are highly charged dramas that resist any literal or reductive translation. Think Franz Kafka meets Samuel Beckett meets Anna Kavan and you get an idea of what Goodman can pack into a painting.
There might be a costumed figure in one painting, irregular elliptical shapes that are surrogate figures in another, and a volumetric form with tentacle-like appendages in still another. Each figure is distinct and bears little or no resemblance to others in her current exhibition. Everything in her work feels charged, even when it is not immediately apparent what we are looking at. In two of the paintings, “Jumping Out of My Skin” (2014) and “Euff” (2015), I felt as if I were looking at someone who had been turned inside out, that I was not looking at an outward appearance, but at the secret image one might have of oneself.
In “Jumping Out of My Skin” a grayish, neckless torso with three appendages (are they two arms and a leg or three arms?) has a roundish, boulder-like head sitting squarely on top of it. Most of the black lines on the head can be read as scars, while another suggests a lipless, frog-like mouth. One black circle (or eye) on the top right side, adjacent to the edge, suggests the figure is looking to the right, while another black circle on the lower left side (also adjacent to the edge) implies that the head is cocked and looking directly at us. Goodman has made Picasso’s simultaneous views go haywire.
Look at the leg rising up from the lower left side, like an upside down L, with the foot pointing to the left. The pose recalls the way a waiter balances a huge tray in the palm of one hand. It also brings to mind the pose a Forties actress such as Carole Lombard or Bette Davis might take when she is bored. There is something incongruous and funny about this.
But what about the arm rising up from behind the upraised leg, encircling the top of the head and, with a tiny (deformed?) hand seemingly scratching just above the eye, as if puzzled? And what about the right arm that seems to be resting in the crook of the leg between the thigh and calf, suggesting nonchalance, exasperation and impatience?
Possibly lying on its back, the ungainly, armless creature in “Euff” seems both human and slug-like, sporting two different-sized tentacles that may or my not be legs. Are the crooked red lines marking the creature’s body veins or scars? What is the meaning of the green bar running along most of the painting’s top edge and right side, with four thin branches, two of which are tipped in red, extending from the lower right side towards the creature? Is it a prod or possibly another form of life? There is an internal logic to the painting that holds the viewer’s attention, even as it refuses to give up its meaning. Confronted by a wide array of unanswerable questions, the painting is bewildering and disconcerting. It is Goodman at her creepy best.
“Almost a Bride” (2015) is a strange and forceful painting that gets under your skin. A black, net-like grid of ridged lines, which the artist made by dripping paint from a narrow bottle top, covers most of the yellowish-green ground. The places where the ground is visible destabilize the figure-ground relationship. In one small area on the lower left side, the net appears to have been torn open. Aseverely dressed, hooded figure floats in the middle of the painting, contained by the grid of ridged lines around her.
A grayish-white, triangular hood hides the woman’s head and extends down to her elbows, which are pointing outward, suggesting that the upper arms are nearly perpendicular to the body. Her long, thin, grayish forearms, which cross over each other, culminate in tiny, barely formed hands. The pose is elegant, the pallor sickly, and the size of the hands disturbing. The hood or hat feels both too big and just right. The dress is largely black, slightly narrower at the bottom than the top; its shape suggests a coffin or a severely cut gown.
A white vertical rectangle, possibly a patch, covers bottom right corner of the dress, possibly a sign that it has been repaired, a notion echoed by three overlapping Band-Aid-colored rectangles across the right side of the hood, near the neck. Impasto shapes in bright colors (yellow, red, green, blue and violet) emerge from behind the black dress. A pile of blackish, round clumps lie near her feet.
Starting with the ridged net of carefully dripped lines, every shape and patch of paint comes across as a palpable thing, many of which are unnamable. Is this figure a penitent, a bridesmaid, or a member of an unknown religious order? Our questions remain unanswered and we are left with painting.
There are few contemporary artists who can make a convincing narrative painting, one that doesn’t devolve into a mere story. Brenda Goodman is one of them. Her densely packed surfaces convey a state of both claustrophobia and relentless pressure. In some paintings, the linear geometric elements define a precarious balance, a sense that everything could topple, but somehow doesn’t.
According to a recent conversation I had with Goodman, she starts out by painting a network of lines on a smooth, prepared panel. She goes on from there, opening herself to the shapes evoked by the negative spaces. Painting seems to be as much a form of divination as a way to dig up painful memories, bringing into focus the difficult tremors and disturbing experiences we all deal with.
Such painting often leads to repetition, to returning to the same trauma time and again, to becoming shrill, maudlin, or brittle. Goodman doesn’t land in any of these pitfalls. Rather, she elevates her pain into visceral visions of troubling beauty.
Brenda Goodman: New Work continues at Life on Mars (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through April 19.