Brenda Goodman’s Abstraction and Pain
In her art, Goodman seems to both revisit trauma and heal it. The results are moving and painful.
BY: JOHN YAU — AUGUST 14, 2021
HUDSON, NY — Many of the paintings in the exhibition Brenda Goodman: Travelin’ Down That Painted Road, at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (July 31–August 29, 2021), were made since the COVID-19 pandemic required New York to go under lockdown. I thought about that enforced isolation because the exhibition’s title reminded me of the long dirt road that the artist Elliott Greene drove me down a few summers ago when we went to visit Goodman and her wife, Linda Dunne, and their dog and cat.
The four of them live in a farmhouse next to her studio in a wooded rural setting where the nearest neighbor was not within shouting distance. It seemed to me that Goodman’s life — already lived in relative isolation — did not change radically because of the pandemic. A conversation with her confirmed that feeling.
I have written about Goodman’s paintings as far back as when she was a young artist in Detroit in the early 1960s, and up to her recent ones. I think the abstract paintings she began making around 2007, leading to her current pieces, constitute her strongest body of work. In them, she has combined the weirdness of her early paintings (such as bugs crawling out from under rugs) and the disturbing materiality of her confrontational self-portraits (for instance, an obese woman cramming her mouth with unnamable food) to arrive at an unsettling abstraction that she seems to have equated with a damaged and recovering body.
Together, the three bodies of work mark a trajectory of nearly half a century that resembles that of no one else of her generation (she was born in 1943), and should be the subject of an in-depth survey exhibition. For decades, creative independence by a woman was considered eccentric or misguided, but that chauvinistic view has begun to change, opening a space where the work of an artist such as Goodman might finally be championed by art world institutions.
What is most unnerving about the recent painting is the tension she achieves by merging visceral immediacy with geometric coolness, which is further heightened by her subject matter: the psychic scarring the body accumulates over time. She has been able to probe this subject by meshing the emotional aspects of expressionist abstraction with the detatchment of geometric forms. If the artist was the ostensible subject of her first two bodies of work, one cannot say that with the same certitude about her abstractions.
Goodman paints in oil on hollow-core wood panels, which she often gouges with a linoleum cutter, defacing the surface with a network of lines. When she applies paint, she is putting it on a wounded surface. In “Unfinished Memory” (2019), which consists of two panels abutted together, an irregular, five-sided geometric form in dark red on a rough surface rises up from the bottom edge of the left panel, part of it extending into the right panel. It is hard not to read the surface of this form as scar tissue or a scab, something covering over or waiting to be picked at.
There are abstract shapes overlaid with other shapes, a tall, vertical rectangle in dirty yellow saturated with palpable black lines. One can sense that an unspecified turmoil, at which the title hints, pervades the painting, with its jamming together of different planar forms and incised surfaces.
In “Weighing the Odds” (2020), Goodman has built up a rough yellow and umber surface that is reminiscent of packed earth. A ridged line spans the lower third of the painting, slanting slightly downward from left to right. An irregular, black, boulder-like form sits atop a smaller off white egg-like form, the line running through where they meet, like seam. Both resting on and floating above the black form are spherical shapes, some brightly colored, others defined by a network of thick black lines, and still others that seem to have emerged from the painting’s earth-like ground.
The black boulder dominates the composition. One of the things I like about this painting is that it is based on a logic that is internal to the painting, without revealing the artist’s intention or its meaning. And yet, even as it resists explication, it holds my attention. This is the biggest difference between Goodman’s abstractions and her earlier figurative work. The abstractions don’t announce their intention, which is a rarity in a time when meaning is one of the ways an artwork’s strength is measured.
But our inability to name exactly what the work is about is, I believe, consistent with Goodman’s tenacity. I read the black form as a surrogate of the artist, impossibly balanced on the ridged line, refusing to fall.
In “Calm” (2019), a scarred, red-and-black, seven-sided shape, which shifts between flatness and dimensionality, is isolated against a thinly painted brownish-red surface, whose faint gouges are still visible. The form hovers close to the painting’s right edge, with its far side extending just beyond the picture plane’s mid-point.
A shallow, vertical greenish-yellow triangle spans the painting’s left edge. The solitary character of the seven-sided shape, its scarred and crackled skin, exudes an unexpected serenity. It is, of the paintings in the exhibition, the most tranquil, particularly when compared with the irregular grid of cut lines animating “Red Head” (2021) or the heavily worked surface of “Oh Brother” (2021).
A number of works on paper are in the basement gallery. Rather than the 6 by 8-inch works that have become Goodman’s staples, these measure around 12 by 16 inches. This change in scale is welcome because it conveys her restlessness, her desire to stretch and do something new and unexpected. She has cut into the surface of these pieces with an ice pick.
As with the paintings, the tangle of lines becomes her starting point for where to apply paint. I was reminded of a broken porcelain or glass vessel in which the shards still fit together. Maybe because of the intimate scale of the works on paper, it seems that Goodman has returned to that state of brokenness throughout her career. In her paintings and works on paper she seems to both revisit trauma and heal it. The results are moving and painful. Damage, she seems to tell us, can be repaired, but that does not mean it is gone or forgotten.