Brett Goodroad: Toe Buoy
At Phoenix Gallery, Brighton.
9 – 27 May 2018 (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
This is an exhibition that cannot fail to intrigue. American artist, Brett Goodroad, has produced a major sequence of small ink drawings and they are displayed in various groupings in the largest room at the Phoenix Gallery for the Brighton Festival. Inevitably, the available space dictates a splitting up of so many works. One wall holds 15 drawings (or are they paintings?) and another presents ten works. There are also two drawings in one corner and a temporary wall with four on one side but just one on the reverse. Another dozen framed works adds up to a total of 44, so there is much to see.
The arrangement has some chronological sequencing but the adjustment to the exhibition environment prompts a reading of the works both as a sequential narrative structure and as individual scenarios to be considered. This, as it happens, is appropriate for Toe Buoy. The implied linearity of the series (as in A to B or left to right) is given an added dimension, as the viewer is obliged to peer closely at individual works and can allow the eye to be drawn into monochromatic depths of inferred space. This tonal aspect lends itself to creating a sense of envelopment and atmosphere: a sense of place, albeit with some degree of mystery.
Placed in Goodroad’s virtual environments, the viewer must bring his or her own interpretation of events – or just take it in without the need for clarity of message. It’s a poetics of space that is presented, where one must ‘be’, rather than judge or search for specific meaning.
But of course, there is a context beyond the images. The artist is resident in San Francisco and is developing a reputation as a painter of landscapes. He works on his colour dominated paintings in his garden, in a local landscape that is often damp and misty. Of his painting he has said: “I want to handle colour like Ingres and end up in the Nabis.” This reveals Goodroad’s knowledge of art history and places him in a Modernist context (the Nabis acknowledged flatness in painting long before Clement Greenberg made it a dictum for painting).
To broaden his creative portfolio, Goodroad is also a writer. The exhibition title, Toe Buoy, originates from a poem that the artist wrote in 2015. In the exhibition leaflet the author has explained that:
This poem is one of a set of poems I have written over the past five years surrounding the fictional characters Elm and Aleen. The poems work around a central image of Aleen floating in an ocean and a boundary: the seam of water, the line making her contour. We see her toes, her skin drying in the air and the ocean taking it away from her.
The question is: Is Aleen about revery? Or of fish or mammals?
Aleen and Elm were painters who became sick because image and physical presence grew too much. She wrote: ‘when the world became oracular ecstasy left evening’.
A bowl of boiling
Or is Aleen about painting? About bringing things together: let things be air and water. How can one compose them to make them musical? Or their history, the raising colour: resting nude under a tree, a leafy wink.
‘Or, my lyrical elephant, carry a lover’.
Goodroad is clearly leaving his poetry open to interpretation, but a notion of reverie and submersion has dream-like connotations. Visual content in Goodroad’s writing appears to be Imagistic (revealing his interest in the Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker – an Objectivist, Imagist, Surrealist writer) and as might be expected translates into actual imagery in his primary role as a visual artist. In the quieter, visual medium of the painter, the unspoken but revealed can be as equally clear or obscure as the written or spoken word.
In Toe Buoy the painterly ink drawings have a sense of a state of becoming – rather like the process of under or over developing black and white photographic prints that were once produced in the darkroom before the advent of the digital medium. Some of the drawings even suggest multiple exposures, or the merging of normally disconnected events in a dream-state. This oblique coming together of imagery is relational in a cognitive and personal sense – but holds potential for notions of the collective unconscious that the Surrealist writers and artists explored in varying degrees.
From the natural world, through which Goodroad channels his depictions, his tonal use of ink shows that the surroundings are constantly in a state of flux and continuously evolving. Distilled from the artist’s imagination, these are not necessarily strange lands. The sense of place might be from Europe as well as North America. The first impression is of a disturbing Goyaesque ambience to the imagery. But these might be stills from a low-budget film noir genre movie rather than etchings from the studio of a European master some 200 years ago. The works also have an air of immediacy that is often characteristic of what is essentially a drawing process. Working with Japanese Sumi ink, a medium favoured by Manga illustrators, Goodroad is making imagery that harks back to the European tradition of narrative ‘in’ painting. The works suggest a roster of influences, from Tiepolo (especially his drawings) to Titian’s tonally adjusted chromatic range of chiaroscuro in figures and environments: or from Watteau to Surrealism via Constable and Romanticism to Frederick Edwin Church and the 19thcentury Hudson River School.
It may only be coincidental, but an intimate sense of the landscape – suggestive of Jean-Antoine Watteau, working a century before Goya, who produced fête galante canvases depicting outdoor entertainment and courtship, especially figures in wooded landscape – came to mind. But the Toe Buoy imagery is claustrophobic for the most part, especially when watery depths are depicted. In his introduction to the exhibition on the opening day, Goodroad said that ‘mold’ worked well as an analogy for the work. From this surprising off-the-cuff remark his organic approach to image making, in paint or ink, becomes apparent.
Sumi ink is a medium that dries matt, and on cold white Bristol board it lacks warmth. The imagery sinks in to the surface like they are secrets. Dark, indistinct and incongruous forms invite closer looking. In one particular image, initial obscurity reveals a naked figure in the gloomy shadow space. (An old friend once told me that he only dreamed in black and white – now I begin to understand the experience.) The unconscious is inferred where a poetic off-the-wall surrealism meets a narrative of the physical and the psychological: mixed with love and fear, homeland and wilderness. It’s all strangely perverse.
Some images give and have clarity. Others resist a reading or recognition. But not every image is located in the realm of the imagined. For example, one particular image referenced the Sun Dance Ceremony that the indigenous Plains Indians of North America once practiced. In this ceremony pain is tethered as an inducement to vision – and to healing.
In a 2015 interview with writer Claudia La Rocco, Goodroad acknowledged the curative potential of his painting practice:
“I make the paintings and see illness and religion. I see that I am trying to heal something through my process, and that the solving is a part of this.”
Perhaps this related to Aleen and Elm’s sickness as painters in Goodroad’s poem? This might sound fanciful, but if healing in all societies is necessary, perhaps we need the painters, or more broadly, the creative and imaginative outpourings of writers, performers and visual artists to counter our increasingly technological and digitally controlled and neutered society?
The sequence of poetic illustrations demands that the viewer takes part in the storytelling by prodding at their own imaginative faculties. If you visit the show take your time to look at the work with an open mind – the reward might not be immediately felt, but the imagery will linger long after, and you can invent your own narratives and acknowledge your own creative powers.
All artwork images © Brett Goodroad.
Brett Goodroad’s website:
Gregory Lind Gallery interview with Claudia La Rocco: