Betty Goodwin

Galerie René Blouin

This tightly orchestrated exhibition of Betty Goodwin’s sculptures, working drawings, multimedia constructions, and prints made between 1965 and 1991 is an addendum and update to her 1987 retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Virtually none of the figurative references (dark, partially obscured images of the human form) from Goodwin’s Swimmer, 1982–85, and “Carbon” series, 1986—the large-scale drawings on vellum, Transpagra, and Geofilm, for which she is best known, are present here. Those depictions of implied tragedy, reminiscent of Goya, seemed the products of an unwavering eye for the detached state of the human condition. The continuum of works in the present show—formative, exploratory and inspirational—voice the same concerns but do so using the sheer physical impact of their tactility and composition.

Vest, 1974, and Tarpaulin No. 10 ( Passage for a Tall Thin Man), 1976–91, simply present weathered objects, the surfaces of which are worn by the passage of time, with tiny, innocuous elements (staples, patches, pins, and color pigment) attached like esthetic stitches—synaptic devices that act simultaneously as chance elements and mnemonic scars.

Steel Notes XXV (The Absence of Signals), 1991, is a work in an ongoing series Goodwin began in 1989. A slab of metal, suggesting a piece of armor that cannot be pierced, has a distinctly phallic form welded to it that resembles a circuit breaker. Foreign elements—fingernails painted gold, delicate locks of hair, and erotic markings of color—make the piece less an apologia to Minimalism than an apotheosis of the physical, tactile nature of the materials themselves. These male and female elements coexist only on the surfaces of the pieces, as if by necessity. Their physical connections seem more intuitive and archaic.

In Steel Room No. 4, 1991, a metal box stands on four extended legs; its only connection to the outside is a metal pipe that leads to the floor. Distorted Events No. 1, 1989–90, a figure hanging above a dense black image of a chair, painted in tar on aseptic white tiles, calls to mind the work of Leon Golub. One gets the distinct feeling, not only that an act of violence, has been perpetrated against human nature, but that this atrocity itself has been devoured by the media. Goodwin states, “Media images numb you to the point where the media find more extreme images, extreme to the point where it becomes madness.” The visual ambiguity of the piece reaffirms our own uncertainly as to which is worse—the act of physical violence itself or the unstated effects of communicating it through the mass media.

Nest, a seminal monotype-and-collage piece from 1965—a beautifully lyrical work painted in swirls of aqueous blue and incorporating pieces of natural fiber—represents a miniature bird’s nest. While less visually lucid, an etching and ink drawing from 1973 presents the same nest motif in duplicate, beneath which we read, “A small cozy retreat or place of residence, a haunt, a place of habitual resort; a snuggery. The abode of anything evil, baneful; as in a nest of rogues; a nest of vice.” A recent Plexiglas-box piece titled Nests and Stone No. 2, 1991, contains two structurally homologous but integrally different nests. The first, made of inhospitable wires and nails, is separated by a smooth rounded stone from the second, which recreates the spontaneous architecture of a bird’s nest out of natural materials.

By introducing a mnemonic variability of elements and establishing fragile connections between them, Goodwin’s work clearly addresses our painful, dispossessed state of being—our failure to communicate. These material indices suggest that if indeed our civilization’s loss of intimacy is its principal failing, it is one that is largely self-induced, a symptom of our compulsive, media-saturated condition. This show gives us a much better idea of the contiguous primal, intuitive forces behind the conceptual face of Goodwin’s art.

John K. Grande