Margaret Ewing on Brenda Goodman

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In Brenda Goodman’s painting Self-Portrait 4A, 1994, a cream-colored tank of a spindly-armed figure stares at the viewer as he stuffs mysterious colored objects into his monstrous mouth. A bit chilling and immensely captivating, the image set the stage for this compact eight-work retrospective that gave us a glimpse into Goodman’s prolific five-decade career. The artist’s nude, semi-surreal self-portraits reveal the lifelong engagement she has had with her own body, an engagement brought about by the psychological impact of her battles with fluctuating weight and self-perception. Freely rendered, Goodman’s figures are doubly defined by his focus on depicting the gritty materiality of flesh and by his placement of his subjects in often empty and cavernous spaces.

Yes Self-Portrait 4A appears to be a cousin of Jean Dubuffet’s figurative paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the resemblance is not coincidental. Goodman is candid about his predecessors in art history and names the French painter among his relatives. Other parts, such as Self portrait 1, 1974, the first work here, laid bare a connection to the paintings of Philip Guston, as well as the strange and haunting work of surrealists such as Leonora Carrington. In Self portrait 1, a form that closely resembles an inverted Klansman hood, a la Guston, has both human and animal features, but they are arranged haphazardly. Watery bloodshot eyes are planted atop a triangular head; thin antlers grow out of the figure’s torso, and a gaping maw where a stomach should be is filled with precarious stacks of cascading teeth. What prevents Goodman’s work from being simply derivative is that his torturous psychic excavations play with surfaces and textures – the artist outlines his pain with formal invention and painterly delight.

Goodman was born in 1943 and belongs to the generation of female artists whose early and middle careers were mostly overlooked. his practice has developed, for the most part, independently of the art world. She moved to New York from Detroit in 1976, at a time when other (mostly white) female artists banded together in the city in acts of feminist solidarity, although during this time Goodman mostly remained alone. In 1979 she was included in the Whitney Biennial and presented three tabletop dioramas that represented her short-lived foray into sculpture.

In this exhibition, paintings made between 2004 and 2006 show Goodman introducing storytelling more forcefully into his work. In Self portrait 17, 2005, she depicts herself lying in an aquatic landscape populated by dozens of mysterious and evocative figures, three of them, rendered in black, crouching on her island-like body, while in the foreground a flock of colorful slurred creatures emerges from mud liquid. In Self portrait 202005, Goodman depicts himself in his studio, overshadowed by oversized reproductions of earlier works. Self-Portrait 55, 2006, is the most sculptural work exhibited. Here the artist has mixed pumice and ash into her pigment to create a variegated, curiously archaeological surface that plays with density: in some parts of the image she has aggressively scraped away the paint, while in other areas, the medium was left to drip like leaking body fluids. Its sickly shades of copper, yellow and brown, so close in tone, provide a fitting background for an unsettling piece of a figure whose head has practically dissolved into itself.

A strangeness of the best kind permeates Goodman’s work. Her cheeky self-exposure sheds much-needed light on those parts of ourselves that many of us struggle to conceal. Yet, although she denies that her work is about being gay, it’s hard to imagine that the experience of living as a lesbian in a predominantly homophobic world played no role in shaping her self-conception (and it’s almost impossible not to see all of this mortified flesh as being wounded in battle). Steeped in existential inquiry, Goodman’s art of heartbreaking vulnerability strikes a distinctive emotional chord that is seductive, terrifying and unmistakably human.

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