Art

In Five Decades of Self-Portraits, an Artist Refuses to Tone Down Her Feelings

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Brenda Goodman, “Self Portrait 4” (1994), diptych, oil on wood, installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — Brenda Goodman has been steadily doing her thing for decades, moving from early success within the Cass Corridor movement in her native Detroit, to a varied career in New York City, and finally to her current retreat in the relative sanctity of the Catskills. Her “thing” is a little bit difficult to sum up, perhaps, because over the course of this long and productive career, her creative output has vacillated between painting and drawing (with forays into three-dimensional constructions); smooth surfaces and chaotic buildup on canvas; and intimate small-scale works and jaw-dropping large paintings that grab your eye from across the room. But all these works come from a place of deep personal perspective and wildly messy emotion, and, as a newcomer to Goodman’s works, this strikes me as relevant to a contemporary conversation about women artists and female identity writ large.

Goodman is not self-identifying as a feminist. “I have never dealt with the ideas of the male gaze or any feminist issues in my work,” she says to me via email. “It comes purely from what I am feeling and going through at the moment in my own life. I’ve never toned done any feelings in my work or in my person …. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I paint as directly as that in my work.” And with due deference to Goodman in her determination to speak her truth, I submit that a refusal to tone down one’s feelings within the professional arena is a radically feminist act.

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Installation view of ‘Brenda Goodman: A Life on Paper’ at Paul Kotula Projects

Goodman’s oeuvre includes two intense self-portrait series that were a means for her to deal with personal struggles around her weight and physical appearance. I met Goodman last month at the opening of Brenda Goodman: A Life on Paper at Paul Kotula Projects in Ferndale — one of two tandem career-retrospectives taking place in Metro Detroit at the moment — and it is impossible to imagine that the diminutive and energetic figure standing before me once weighed 200+ pounds.

Anyone who has battled with weight or issues of self-image will instantly recognize the selected self-portraits included in the second, painting-focused career retrospective, Brenda Goodman: Selected Works 1961–2015 at CCS’s Center Galleries, as mirrors of despair and self-loathing. “Self Portrait 4,” from Goodman’s first paintings about body dysmorphia, depicts a bald and chalky-white figure, vaguely female inasmuch as her nude form indicates labial folds and the suggestion of breasts, but more ghoul than girl. Eyes stare vacantly at the viewer, as she crams substances into her mouth with both hands. The image is appropriately manifested by the intense building up of material on the surface of the canvas; viewed at very close range, the figure’s hands and the food seem little more than piles of oil paint. Despite the density and chaos of this creation, and the desperation of the figure, Goodman’s skill as a painter salvages beauty from this horror.

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Brenda Goodman, “Self Portrait 20” (2005), diptych, oil on wood

Ten years later, following the loss and eventual regaining of nearly 70 pounds, Goodman launched a second self-portrait series, featuring a more naturalistic figure — still chalky-white with body parts hanging in folds like a plucked chicken. To combat the vulnerability of presenting a more literal image of herself, Goodman painted several of the figures in this series with their faces hooded. But the most aching iteration of these portraits is the one that depicts Goodman in her studio leaning against the wall in contemplation of the very portraits that she constructed out of her own self-loathing a decade hence. There could not be a more potent poster image for the demoralizing experience of body dysmorphia, and to put that kind of personal struggle on display in a world as aesthetic and unforgiving as that of contemporary art is an act of courage and self-revelation.

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Brenda Goodman, “Self Portrait 1” (1974), oil, sand, pencil on canvas. Goodman’s earlier works are more playful, but are already juggling gender signifiers, vivid colors, and interpretations of self. (click to enlarge)

As the multitude of works revealing her “life on paper” at Paul Kotula Gallery shows, Goodman’s need for self-expression is irrepressible, manifesting in endless iterations. As one of the largest pieces in the Kotula exhibit, “Figures in the Rain,” demonstrates, Goodman manages to pack just as much emotion into compositions that substitute boulders for human subjects, sensitive to the poetic implications of even these surrogate objects.

Women have a special kind of relationship to surface appearance — we are uniquely pressed to look “good” while going about our lives, as defined by a litany of daily self-alterations. When I say that Brenda Goodman presents a rough surface, I am not merely speaking about the sometimes literally belabored quality of her canvases — with oil paint sometimes piled half an inch off the canvas, or violently scratched away to created anti-figures — I am speaking of her determination to show a view of reality uncompromised by a desire to be liked and coveted, or to make people comfortable. In the end, Goodman’s truth proves to be a very good look, after all.

Brenda Goodman: Selected Works 1961–2015 continues at CCS Center Galleries (301 Frederick St, Detroit, Mich.) through December 19.  Brenda Goodman: A Life on Paper continues at Paul Kotula Projects (23255 Woodward Ave, Ferndale, Mich.) through December 19.

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