Dr Claudia Tobin, 'the last house in the world', Marlborough Fine Art, 2016

Jan. 27, 2017


Catherine Goodman’s paintings have a feeling of animal life about them. Her recent work attends to the feeling and form of the non-human world in a way that translates her fascination with the instinctual, untamed vitality the animal embodies. This exhibition includes representational imagery of animals—a monkey from Arabian Nights splayed on a velvety crimson backdrop, and the luscious red parrot inspired by a Deccan miniature— but it also reveals a less definable form of the ‘creaturely’. If her paintings of India exhibited in 2012 expressed a certain wildness, which made itself visible in the breaking down of form and surface, then the recent works pursue this in a more meditative and exploratory new language.

The intuition and primal energy of the animal has been readily associated with artists over centuries. This is part of the myth of the artist as one who transgresses the boundary between nature and culture to access the primitive part of the self more familiar in childhood. One might think of the poet Ted Hughes, who considered his poems as animals with ‘a vivid life of their own’ (as he described in Poetry and Meaning); or the predatory, animal intensity often associated with Lucian Freud, both of whom were known to Goodman. Her conception of her practice has a distinctive vitalism, which is of a different kind to Hughes or Freud. There is a generosity in her openness to the untamed; an approach to the subject that allows for sympathetic distance as well as intimacy. A badger pelt waistcoat of Hughes’ hangs in her studio, and this sense of inhabiting—of taking on the skin of a subject—is a suggestive symbol for the metamorphosis we encounter in different ways in her work. Her paintings appear to have a life of their own, a fantasy one can pursue in her studio where the canvases hang unstretched and unframed as if not yet tamed while she works on them. These worked over, layered canvases bear the record of sensation and vigorous gestural contact, the volatility and exhilaration of making in paint.

Red Earth

Red Earth, 2015-16, pastel on paper, 48 x 63 cm

Goodman invites us to read the different ‘faces’ of the natural world—often the same scene—drawn or painted at different times of the day, in shifting light and weather, with the attention and receptivity we give to human faces, and to portraits. The limitation of labelling her work by genre is evident—its hybridity exceeds the categories of portrait or landscape. As she has pointed out, making portraits involves the process of getting to know one’s subject, and this also applies to landscapes, which she enters with her senses alert. Despite the marginality of human presence, these feel like inhabited paintings. The trees blown about under a roiling blue sky in Four Sisters were painted from a drawing made on a Tuscan hillside, and express the boisterously dynamic relationship intimated by the title; yet they are as much about the slap and swoop of paint on canvas. The gestural areas of sky feel as though they were shaped by the elements, recalling Peter Lanyon’s ‘glider’ paintings or ‘airscapes’ as he called them. Such works convey Goodman’s characteristic responsiveness to the physical and cultural worlds of the places she paints, whether in Italy, Scotland, or India; but these are not, or not exclusively, descriptive paintings about particular places. Rather, they transmit the feeling of what it means to be a sensing, imagining body in those spaces.

Drawing from life functions as a way of taking the temperature of a new place, ‘a way in’ as she describes it. Her drawings are at the vital centre of her practice. She thinks of them as ‘alive’ and they hold a charge and energy that she returns to again and again to fuel her paintings. The idiom of a particular landscape is registered on the level of line: the light, wispier mark that captures the light and insubstantiality of the Scottish highlands in Glenmuick; or the electric burst of colour over brooding tropical foliage in Red Earth. We recognise a shared language, which relates the muscular forms of trees, given space and presence in the recent drawings, to the supple human bodies she regularly draws from paintings by Veronese and Rubens at The National Gallery. The lithographs feel like a continuation of this practice: they preserve the pace and intensity of drawing from film in rapid, liquid lines.

Glenmuick

Glenmuick, 2015-16, pastel on paper, 75 x 51.5 cm

The absence of the human in many of the works conveys a sense of solitude, silence and aloneness but not, one feels, of loneliness. ‘The last house in the world’, a quotation from Rilke’s poem in The Book of Pilgrimage is a suggestive point of entrance. Goodman’s work shares with the poet a sense of profound interiority, of attention tuned toward the inner as well as the outer life, which makes the art of poet and painter a form of meditation. She is attracted to the musical and rhythmical life of a poem, the feeling that it has a life of its own distilled within a small space. Reading Rilke’s poem after painting her work of the same title, she found a sense of coincidence, ‘the image matched the feeling’.

A line of thought about the psychic resonance of the house and its role in the creative imagination connects Rilke to Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher and author of The Poetics of Space. In his book Bachelard describes the universality of the ‘hut dream’: ‘the dreamer of refuges dreams of a hut, of a nest, or of nooks and corners in which he would like to hide away, like an animal in its hole’. In the history of art, the ‘dream of the hut’ recalls the image of the hermit dwelling in remote solitude (one thinks of paintings of St Jerome), but it also makes itself felt in works from Cozens’ sombre watercolour, Peasant’s Hut between Naples and Portici, to Cézanne’s paintings of abandoned houses set in the landscape surrounding Aix-en-Provence.

Goodman’s ‘last house’ is described in cool blue and ash-silver tones licked by streaks of orange and salmon paint, which call attention to the bare bones of its geometry and the branches of the surrounding trees. The canvas is worked over to the edges, the coarsened, gritty texture evoking the roughness of bark and the weathered surface of the hut. Set slightly back from the picture plane and hunched enigmatically within the trees, it is a compelling, haunting image. A half hidden, dilapidated house is an invitation to the imagination: was it once a refuge for a lone wanderer, a site of pilgrimage, a child’s den? An artist’s studio? One recalls Bachelard’s question, ‘How […] in these fragments of space, did the human being achieve silence? How did he relish the very special silence of the various retreats of solitary daydreaming?’ Goodman’s recent ‘retreats of solitary daydreaming’ take us to Italy, India, and Scotland but also into less chartable territories of memory and imagination. One comes full circle in learning that she wrote her thesis on Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space while an undergraduate at Camberwell School of Art.

Morning Palapa

Morning Palapa, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 138 x 174 cm

The hut or house in its many forms has long been part of the iconography of Goodman’s painting and a frequent subject in her work made in Manali, a hill station in the Himalayas, where she returns each year. In her recent work we encounter other provisional structures, including palapas and hammocks. According to Bachelard ‘every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves, is a symbol of solitude for the imagination’. Are these Goodman’s symbols of solitude for the imagination? These temporary structures are made for human repose and shelter yet they are open to the elements, as much symbols of transience and the fleeting mark man makes upon the earth, and in paint. We experience the ‘shelter’ in Small Grey Palapa at close range and from an intimate perspective, almost as if we were underneath it. The canvas is smaller than its companion piece, Morning Palapa, but the enlarged scale of the umbrella evokes a child’s perception. Part of the visceral attraction of these paintings is about such shifts in scale and spatial ambiguity. The viewer’s encounter is important to the artist. Her paintings make the familiar unfamiliar, inviting us to feel our way in and at times to return to the strangeness of the encounters we experience in childhood. There is an impression of the creaturely here too; one can almost feel the bristly texture of the straw shelter as if we have crawled into the habitat of an animal, experiencing it with physical intimacy.

Goodman’s Russian heritage infuses her creative imagination and its great literary and cinematic traditions are touchstones in her practice. The atmosphere of The Last House in the World is permeated by the visual worlds of the great twentieth-century Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Watching and drawing from his films has been an ongoing activity for Goodman, a way of ‘feeding off another’s eye’, to use her visceral phrase. There is also a link between Rilke and Tarkovsky, which is not only intuitive or personal to the artist. Rilke travelled through Russia in the late nineteenth century, finding in its vast cultural and physical landscape a ‘spiritual motherland’, which fuelled his writing of The Book of Pilgrimage. As he observed in later years, ‘All the home of my instinct, all my inward origin is there’. A similarly intense connection to Russia’s cultural and spiritual tradition ripples through Goodman’s imaginative life. Her recent work is haunted by Tarkovsky’s seminal exploration of the force of time in human lives, or ‘sculpting in time’ as he titled his book of writings on cinema. In the Mood recalls the elemental imagery of his 1975 film The Mirror, a meditation on memory, time and war, and its ambiguous movement between different temporal frames. The scene in Goodman’s painting is spliced into three parts by searing vertical lines but the boundaries between the interior and the snow-blurred exterior and between the material and illusory world remain ambiguous. We are led into the oneiric space of the mirror. In the Mood

In the Mood, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 171 x 204 cm

Historically employed as a vanitas motif, the trope of the mirror in art has often been associated with the myth of Narcissus as an implicit rebuke to human vanity and a memento mori. For the artist of In the Mood, the mirror functions as a ‘shield’, a symbol of protection. There is a votive quality to this painting: its grand scale and the position of the mirror set above eye level in its gold frame, bears a relationship to an icon or altarpiece, where the act of raising one’s eyes to the deity is a stimulus for spiritual devotion. Despite the peripheral distraction of the swirling snow ‘outside’, the central magnetism and warm resplendence of the mirror compels one’s gaze, animated by dashes of gold paint. The counterpart pastel drawing similarly leaps off the black paper, its exuberant line tracing the ornamentation of the frame. 

There is sense of anticipated action in several of Goodman’s unpeopled scenes, which is closely linked to her narrative impulse. Her densely reworked surfaces are suggestive of palimpsests. Layers of images vanish and sometimes reappear over the gestation of a work, eliciting a sense of excavation, as the surface becomes the living texture of the present, enlivening and interpenetrating the past. As she worked on these paintings, a cast of shadowy characters drawn from fiction and memory made their entrances and exits. Only a few remain visible: in Morning Palapa one distinguishes a ghostly-blue figure hovering on the fence as if on a boundary line (a visual quotation from The Mirror); while In the Mood reveals a motionless figure in the snowy landscape, whether a statue or living person it is left for the viewer to decide. These elusive figures direct their gaze away from an audience, facing an elsewhere. As we grow accustomed to the dynamic surface of Brothers in the South the flaming yellow tree and red hammock take centre stage, sun drenched and magnificent against the muddied tones of the wood. With the luxuriance of red impasto and tassels of orange-gold the image connotes not simply leisure or ease, but also theatre. On closer inspection the corner of the painting reveals the form of a young girl, her back to the viewer, gazing into the woods. Her presence somehow shifts the tone, making it a painting about absorbed looking and introspection—hers, and ours. She summons the dream world of childhood and on one level the girl is a self-portrait of the artist as a young child. The strangeness and irreverent energy of children strikes a different note in Apu’s Son, where the viewer is confronted face-on by a bow and arrow and a grinning blue mask, which transforms the figure of a young boy.

Wayfarer

Wayfarer, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 208 x 169 cm

Goodman has recently pursued her fascination with masks by painting a collection brought back from India. Reading—and transforming— the human face has long been part of her practice. She has spent much of her working life painting portraits from life, sometimes spending years with her sitters. Her interest in the ‘imprint’ of a person dynamises Wayfarer, her monumental painting of Harry Parker, soldier and writer, which was painted from his ‘after-image’ following a portrait made in 2014. We recognise new freedoms and spontaneity in the dancing, gestural swirls and swoops of the brush and exuberance of the palette—Harry’s colours—Goodman calls them. There are passages nearing the muscular, gestural abstraction of the American abstract expressionists. The left arm almost dissolves in a molten mass of colour and the riotous movement conveyed by lush swirls of the brush and audacious colour combinations releases the image from conventional portraiture. It is in such passages that the musicality and rhythmic quality of the painting expresses itself most strongly, revealing a distinctive exploratory language. Goodman was struck by the writer Vikram Seth’s description of classical sitar player, Ustad Ali Khan, who seemed to ‘play for himself’ rather than for an audience, and a similar sense of spontaneous performance emanates from this work. It calls to mind Wallace Stevens’ musician-poet in The Man with the Blue Guitar, who when questioned as to why he does not represent things ‘as they are’, replies: ‘Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar’.

Goodman’s painting does not detach itself entirely from the world of representation and symbols. Despite Harry’s grounded pose, we see a body under pressure and in flux: the torso almost appears concave, and the figure emerges as if muscling his way out from the vortex of brushstrokes. This is a portrait of the archetypal wounded artist: a vulnerable yet affirmative figure who carries a bow and arrows, or sheaf of paintbrushes, a pictorial metaphor for the artist’s tools, which makes reference to Georg Baselitz’s series of ‘hero’ soldier-painters.

Goodman’s recent works are at once paintings about painting, memory and vision, the transience of human beings and their desire for refuge; and perhaps foremost, about delight in paint, line and colour, and the imaginative life it can convey. They are paintings that show how ‘Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar’.

 

Dr Claudia Tobin is a writer and curator specialising in modern literature and visual culture. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, and from 2017 will hold a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Cambridge