Brenda Goodman spent many years painting remarkable self-portraits, in which she is sometimes thinner but usually heavy, in her studio on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. But in recent years she has moved to the Catskills, where she continues to practice her art. Her work has subsequently shifted into the territory of organic abstraction. It is likely that some of this imagery is derived from her experience upstate, but it is also true that the work has developed a bit of a movement, bringing to mind the paintings of Amy Sillman and Thomas Nozkowski. Goodman’s recent pictures demonstrate a kinship with such artists. She, too, has put out a naturally derived abstraction that keeps threatening to portray real things but never really does. Her art—now constructed from a welter of forms that do not obviously connect with each other—results in a bit of dislocation and, sometimes, even babel-like noise. But in the end the paintings hold together through a sharp sense of composition, balancing different elements in a gestalt that communicates both intelligence and feeling.
On ViewLife On Mars Gallery
March 20 – April 19, 2015
Goodman retains her ties to New York City, even though she lives elsewhere. In “Stone Memories” (2014)—one of three paintings shown at the American Academy of Letters, more or less during her exhibition at Life on Mars—her language consists of a black, closely spaced grid, which fills the left and center of the painting. On the right are two organic ellipses: one smaller and black, rendered on the grid, and the other larger and pink, dominating the right side, with lines crisscrossing inside the oblong form. On top of the pink shape, Goodman has painted three black lines that both contrast with and emphasize the luminous, nearly neon pink. The work is a tour de force, quoting the inevitably popular grid, a mainstay of postmodern art, but also pushing it forward toward something new via the placement, side by side, of two kinds of abstraction: geometric and organic. Goodman doesn’t usually do this, preferring to concentrate on rounded forms that take their structure and edge from the outside world, yet “Stone Memories” shows an unusual understanding of the relations between two views, both of them related to nonobjective perception.
The paintings thrive on a varied imagery almost entirely abstract in nature—although there is a running, open-mouthed female figure in “Shake it Off” (2014), more than likely a quote from her earlier work. In “Dark Harmony” (2014), a large gray intestine fills a mostly orange, angular shape that moves from the left edge of the painting toward the right. On the bottom right is a ghostly green shape that sprawls into the center of the picture. This painting maintains its own logic by incorporating a wide spectrum of non-matching configurations. Goodman’s style begins with idiosyncrasy but ends in formal command of her artistic language. The result is illogical but compelling.
In “Soul Talk” (2014), a crosshatched building with a red-lit door and a funnel-shaped black form are imposed on a textural gray background. Here Goodman does a fine job of comparing and contrasting abstraction with an imagery bordering on figuration. The concomitant presence of something that at least seems recognizable with something abstract results in an allure that belongs to a doubled imagery that plays off of itself. The striking black background of “Almost a Bride” (2015) is embellished by a long green stripe that follows the left edge of the painting. In the middle and right of the image are a group of forms: a whitish triangular shape in the center, next to which is a long rectangle of green with rounded edges. Beneath the triangle is a red and green vertical shape. Underneath these forms, we see a rectangle, made of the same grayish-white with which the triangle above is filled. “Almost a Bride” exists in its own world, carried away by its own internal logic.
These paintings, like all the works in this fine exhibition, bring into light relations between shapes that are unfamiliar to us and very different from each other. Goodman’s innate sense of composition enables her to combine a heady mix of shapes into an intuitively coherent outward show. Inevitably, abstraction communicates with figural art; nothing in painting is entirely abstract or entirely actual. Goodman’s realization of this puts her at the top of the game.
Jonathan Goodman is a poet and art critic who has been writing about art for four decades. He is especially interested in sculpture and contemporary art from Asia. He also teaches at Pratt Institute.