New York

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 1, 1974, oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 × 48".

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 1, 1974, oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 × 48".

Brenda Goodman

In Brenda Goodman’s painting Self-Portrait 4A, 1994, a cream-colored tank of a figure with spindly arms stares out blankly at the viewer as it stuffs mysterious colorful objects into its monstrous mouth. A little scary and immensely captivating, the image set the stage for this compact eight-work retrospective that offered us a glimpse into Goodman’s prolific five-decade career. The artist’s nude, semi-Surrealistic self-portraits reveal the longtime engagement she’s had with her own body, one provoked by the psychological impact of her battles with fluctuating weight and self-perception. Loosely rendered, Goodman’s figures are dually defined by her focus on depicting the gritty materiality of flesh and by her subjects’ placement in often empty, cavernous spaces.

If Self-Portrait 4A seems like a cousin of Jean Dubuffet’s figurative paintings of the late 1940s and early ’50s, the resemblance is not coincidental. Goodman is forthright about her art-historical predecessors and names the French painter as among her kin. Other pieces, such as Self-Portrait 1, 1974, the earliest work here, laid bare a connection to Philip Guston’s paintings, as well as to the strange and haunting work of Surrealists such as Leonora Carrington. In Self-Portrait 1, a form that closely resembles an inverted Klansman hood, à la Guston, has both human and animal features, but they are haphazardly arranged. Bloodshot tearing 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 keeps Goodman’s work from being simply derivative is that her torturous psychic excavations play with surfaces and textures—the artist adumbrates her pain with formal invention and painterly pleasure.

Goodman was born in 1943 and is from the generation of women artists whose early and middle careers were mostly ignored; her 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 (mainly white) women artists were banding together in the city in acts of feminist solidarity, though during this period Goodman primarily kept to herself. In 1979, she was included in the Whitney Biennial and showcased three tabletop dioramas that represented her short-lived foray into sculpture.

In this exhibition, the paintings made between 2004 and 2006 show Goodman introducing narrative into her oeuvre more forcefully. In Self-Portrait 17, 2005, she depicts herself lying prone in a watery landscape populated by dozens of mysterious and evocative figures, three of which, rendered in black, crouch atop her island-like body, while in the foreground a flock of colorful impastoed creatures emerge from liquid muck. In Self-Portrait 20, 2005, Goodman portrays herself in her studio, dwarfed by oversize reproductions of previous works. Self-Portrait 55, 2006, is the most sculptural piece on view—here, the artist has mixed pumice and ash into her pigment to create a variegated and oddly archaeological surface that plays with density: In some parts of the picture, she has aggressively scraped the paint away, while in other areas, the medium has been left to drip like leaking bodily fluids. Its sickly shades of copper, yellow, and brown, so close in tone, provide a fitting background for an unsettling lump of a figure whose head has practically dissolved into itself.

A strangeness of the best kind pervades Goodman’s work. Her brazen self-exposure casts a necessary light on those portions of ourselves that many of us work hard to conceal. Yet while she denies that her work is about being gay, it is hard to imagine that the experience of living as a lesbian in a mostly homophobic world has played no part in shaping her self-conception (and it’s nearly impossible not to see all that mortified flesh as being battle wounded). Steeped in existential inquiry, Goodman’s heartrendingly vulnerable art strikes a distinctive emotional chord, one that is seductive, terrifying, and indisputably human.