criticismExhibitions
Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Death, Loss, Pain and Longing: Core themes abound in the profound work of Brenda Goodman


Brenda Goodman: Work 1990-2010 at John Davis Gallery

July 22 to August 15 2010
362½ Warren Street
Hudson, New York 12534
518 828 5907

Brenda Goodman, Hard Choice, 2009.  Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Brenda Goodman, Hard Choice, 2009. Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

This exhibition of oil paintings from the last two decades makes the discerning viewer long for a proper retrospective of Brenda Goodman’s oeuvre. The Detroit-born artist uses events, often painful and psychologically scarring, from her personal life, such as the tragic death of her partner’s son, the loss of a beloved pet, childhood ostracization and lifelong health issues, to influence her abstract inventions. Her combination of figuration and abstraction works seamlessly on conceptual and formal levels, and even when she focuses a specific composition on one or the other, the two stylistic approaches are never separate. The abstractness of the work is cohesive and consistent even in her more figural works and you will find surrogates for the human figure in all of the wholly abstract paintings in this exhibition. When Goodman is making paintings that have easily discernible forms in them, such as the artist sitting or standing naked in her studio studying and absorbed in the act of looking at her own paintings, as in her Self Portrait series, or the figures and weirdly illuminated environments found in her Singing series, we always feel as if the artist’s subjectivity is present in her layered and dense colors, carefully and subtly worked surfaces, and the distortions of space, perspective and form she utilizes.

Goodman creates imagery that is archetypal in the classic Jungian sense, without any literary pretensions or irony. Although her paintings are filled with specific references they are in no way obscure, uncommunicative or a form of therapy. The core experiences of all of our lives are still worth making art about, without resorting to ahistorical pastiche. Goodman’s art proves that if we excavate our emotional experiences by making a serious attempt to master tools and materials of one form or another through time, art works will emerge that will resonate with meaning for a wide swathe of viewers.

Goodman’s paintings are testament to the fact that all space, time, and events in paintings are virtual, that they exist in the mind and in imagination. The abstract forms and masses of lines she invents always suggest a figure or a head, and these appear to be resigned to whatever state of being they are in, be it sad or happy, or experiencing some transformation or tumultuous emotional upheaval. In her Troubled Waters series, for instance, an abstract blobby rock-cloud shape is a surrogate for the artist and other important people in her life, with disturbing stitches in the place of mouth or orifice to denote a face. Goodman’s work is a strong and individual member of a long line of paintings and sculptures that include anthropomorphized abstract shapes. Artists that Goodman has a kinship with include Arshile Gorky, Adolf Gottlieb, and Henry Moore.

Brenda Goodman, Crossing Over, 2009.  Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Brenda Goodman, Crossing Over, 2009. Oil on wood, 60 x 64 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Four large, wonderful paintings from 2009-10 included here, Crossing Over, Burial, Loss, and Hard Choice, are abstract environments which could read either as interiors or exteriors. They are maps of painful emotions. In three of them, a large and dark looming shape commands the viewer’s attention, but the small figures, whether cat and human, which are positioned atop, beneath, or within them, are the driving forces of the images. The figures in these battered but not hopeless landscapes must contend with events and forces beyond their control. The subjectivity of the artist is mediated and not necessarily in charge. Accident and a lack of preliminary sketches on the part of the artist allow the process of painting itself to reveal things. But the triumph of expression is always clear in the sense that the humanoid forms have a dignity to them. There is no narrative element in these paintings, but the artist confronts herself again and again, and through the details of her life she reveals the struggles of human consciousness.

The light-filled and layered surfaces of her paintings make apparent how deeply the craft foundations of painting matter to Goodman. She loves to use a variety of traditional and non-traditional tools to achieve the perpetually revealing painterly terrains in which to immerse our eyes. She uses ice picks, Q-tips, metal spatulas, brushes and palette knives, and cake decorating tubes, as well as admixtures of wood ash of varying coarseness and oil paint to make the final images mysterious. The interplay of translucent washes and opaque smears leaves the viewer wondering how the paintings were made.

Goodman manages to create profound and moving worlds that touch on the core themes of death, loss, pain and longing, joy and celebration, self exploration and self discovery. Her depictions of ritualistic events, as found in paintings like Troubled Waters 4, 2009, often include processions of invented beings. Without being pretentiously philosophical or heavy-handedly literary, and avoiding clichés through sheer inventiveness, Goodman’s compositions tap into a collective consciousness that all of us can relate to. And it isn’t only the abstract forms in her paintings that appear animated or alive; each brushstroke and scrape and drip is infused with an animistic energy.

Brenda Goodman, Troubled Waters, 2009. Oil on wood, 20 x 24 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Troubled Waters, 2009

Brenda Goodman, Loss, 2009. Oil on wood, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Loss, 2009

Brenda Goodman, Burial, 2010.  Oil on wood, 52 x 56 inches.  Courtesy of John Davis Gallery

Burial, 2010


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18 Responses to Death, Loss, Pain and Longing: Core themes abound in the profound work of Brenda Goodman

  1. Wonderful work and inquireyinto the state of being. Thank you for the exploration. Harriette Joffe

  2. Bill Maynes says:

    A terrific show at a wonderful gallery. What else could you ask for?

  3. At last… At last… Someone calling for a retrospective of Brenda’s work! A knowledgable writer. What a joy of a review. Bravo Brenda!

  4. douglas bedard says:

    Brenda stands shoulder to shoulder with such artists as Kiki Smith, Cecily Brown, Susan Rothenberg and Joan Mitchell. Brenda’s recognition is long overdue.

  5. Connie PC says:

    Brenda is an authentic voice in the artworld. She and her work should be held as national treasures.

  6. Glad to see Brenda getting the recognition she so well deserves. A major retrospective of Brenda’s work is the next step.

  7. jonathan santlofer says:

    Totally agree that a retrospective is long overdue for Brenda. The paintings are a knockout, fast on the draw and slow to unravel, the way they should be. You’re the last of big time painters, baby.

  8. I second what Harriette Joffe wrote!

  9. A thoughtful review of a serious artist. Brenda Goodman has been in it for the long haul and truly gets at what is lasting in art, sustaining a relationship with loss.

  10. We all can remember the first time we saw Brenda Goodman’s paintings, that’s how powerful they are. Decades ago. My only regret is that I can’t see these paintings in person, but I sure do appreciate the reviewer’s insights and analysis. Ah, a critic who still loves deep, emotional, solidly crafted paintings.

  11. i feel everyone’s sincerity in the comments about me, my work and this terrific review. thank you so much – all of you.

  12. Michael Vollmar says:

    There are many labels that could be attributed to Brenda’s work…expressionism, surrealism, figurative, narrative, abstract…but seeing the show again reenforced the dynamic [and original] quality of the work. The repetion of forms (as noted by the reviewer) are stand-ins for Brenda but are easily generalized to our own lives.
    Finally, it is “the painting” itself (composition, color, surface…) which suffuses every square inch that makes for compelling viewing. Congratulations Brenda.

  13. I have admired Brenda’s paintings since I first saw them at the Arwin Gallery in Detroit. The paintings are deeper, richer and more compelling than ever. Hudson is fortunate to have the opportunity to see this work.

  14. Lynn Margileth says:

    I feel very fortunate to have seen this show in person on the opening date. I was very moved both by the content of the paintings and by your brilliant ability, Brenda, to convey deep responses to your life’s experiences visually in paint. Seeing these images touched me so that I have been carrying them with me since. I feel the recognition of my own losses and the immensity of our human vulnerability to love and to lose our beloveds. What a great show and a great review!

  15. Brian Rutenberg says:

    She is a true painter through and through.

  16. Brenda Goodman is in my pantheon of painter heroes: I have been following her work for years and relish her determination to keep pushing on into the painterly unknown. What a force! And with all of the paintings I have seen comes a great generosity of spirit, a fearlessness about giving voice to the facts of our beautiful and flawed humanness.
    I concurr with everyone who wants to see a major retrospective exhibition: it’s time. Thank you Eric Gelber for your thoughtful essay about this great show.

  17. Phil Britt says:

    Well deserved recognition! Brenda’s work consistently takes me to a wonderful place I otherwise would never experience. No matter the idea or feeling that drives a particular piece, it is always absorbing and rewarding. Congratulations, and thank you, Brenda. I couldn’t be happier for you.

  18. I too applaud Brenda’s show and the terrific reception it has received. Eric

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