Betty Goodwin’s Swimmer series hangs, in uneasy suspension, in an aqueous, willow-green void. Some seem to be gasping for air. Others, disoriented, let their arms go limp, as if they had just given up on life. Heroic in scale, these drawings depict claustrophobia, death by drowning and other private anxieties. With their delicate, translucent colors, they also proclaim their own beauty, managing both to seduce and disturb.
Hanging unframed on the walls of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, the Swimmer series forms the core of a powerful and affecting retrospective exhibition of Goodwin’s work.
Organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the show will travel to the Vancouver Art Gallery in August and then to two New York galleries (the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the 49th Parallel) before terminating in Montreal next March. The series marks a key point in the long, slow trajectory of the 64-yearold Montreal artist’s career, which began around the show’s chronological starting point of 1971. It was then, when she was in her late 40s, an age when most artists have already been neatly pigeonholed, that Goodwin was intently reinventing herself.
Until then, Goodwin had been the kind of talented, unexceptionable painter who exhibited at the annual spring salon of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts or in the foyer of Eaton’s restaurant. In 1968 she studied etching with the Montreal painter and printmaker Yves Gaucher, an experience that bore fruit in her series of Vest prints. She created them by placing men’s vests under great pressure in a soft-ground etching press.
The resulting prints, rich and sootyblack, showed Goodwin’s penchant for objects that bear the marks and scuffs of life, and that refer, in one way or another, to the human body. Typically, Goodwin pushed the idea as far as it
would go, painting over the vests, collaging them, eviscerating their linings. One print is a homage to Joseph Beuys, the 20th-century German who perhaps more than any other artist invested the most mundane of materials with the potential for making art.
By the mid-1970s Goodwin’s concerns had widened to include the large tar-
paulins used to cover trucks. She collected them with her usual obsessiveness, sifting through dozens of pieces of canvas to find tarpaulins with the right surface. Then she would clean them, coat them with gesso (a glue and plaster-of-paris mix), add ropes, paint them and fold them until, by the alchemy of her labor, they were transformed from inert industrial materials into rich fields of visual activity. She also made several successful forays into the hybrid world of installation art—which
explores the relationship between objects (sculptures and drawings) and their setting. Perhaps the most austere and successful was her work with a ground-floor apartment of Montreal’s de Mentana street.
Her raw materials were nothing more than three rooms of a 100-yearold working-class row house. Working over a period of two years in collaboration with artist Marcel Lemyre, Goodwin painstakingly removed layers of wallpaper and scraped down floors in what amounted to a kind of personal archeology. Then she reapplied gesso to the walls, again activating their surfaces with all but invisible pencil marks. She constructed a room within a room, built a narrow, constricting passageway, manipulated light with gold paint until what had been the most ordinary of interiors became like the magical, exaggerated spaces of childhood. It was typical of Goodwin, a deceptively fragile-looking woman who is a perfectionist in all things, that throughout the six weeks that the de Mentana street exhibit was open, she made herself available to visitors, patiently fielding the comments not only of art world initiates but of irate neighbors asking where the art was.
In December, 1983, Goodwin was one of three artists chosen by Montreal curator Pierre Théberge to represent contemporary Canadian art in Okanada, a vast—and critically controversial —cultural extravaganza at the West Berlin Akademie der Künste. Far from being traumatized by the experience, Goodwin says it was positive. Certainly it proved fruitful. In Berlin she displayed a complex sculptural piece that consisted of an impassable passage, an unnavigable walkway and an element that incorporated representations of a megaphone and an ear, which seemed to speak quietly of the idea of noncommunication. She also put on the wall the first two of her Swimmer drawings—drawings that were to induce a flood of highly personal imagery.
It is those later drawings, their titles often derived from the poetry of Antonin Artaud and Anne Hébert, that make up the bulk of the current retrospective. Some works speak of private hurt. Others hint at public atrocities. Their delicate surfaces—Goodwin frequently uses vellum rendered translucent by linseed oil—bear the marks of erasures and second thoughts. Her pictures are large fields of intuition and improvisation. Her line is a composite of tentative movements, and it is evident that she works and reworks every image, worrying at it until it becomes palpably right.
Yet the precise nature of her message remains elusive. To walk into the exhibition in Toronto is to be surrounded by sumptuous surfaces that convey a Beckett-like world of distance and alienation. Themes of loneliness and loss, of physical closeness and psychic isolation, of betrayal and violence, persist. In Red Sea, two figures, back to back and head to toe, float vertically in a wash of fresco-like reds and greens. The starting point for the picture was a press photograph of the bodies of two Dutch journalists murdered by a right-wing death squad in El Salvador. But in Goodwin’s hands the horror becomes more generalized, less a specific event than part of the human condition.
Anxiety, as art dealers from New York to Cologne can testify, is a marketable commodity; it is the stock-in-trade of the currently receding wave of neoexpressionism. In the show’s eloquent catalogue, American critic Robert Storr judiciously places Goodwin in relation to current fashion—the often crude and declamatory neo-expressionism. “Goodwin’s drawings are by contrast intimate in their address and delicate in their effects,” he writes. “The sensation they create is not one of hysteria or perceptual overload, but rather of a subtle ache, an ambiguous but cumulative unease.”
There are signs, though, that the artist’s vision is becoming increasingly apocalyptic. One of the most moving works in the show is the nearly nineby-30-foot mural Carbon, a great frieze of pain in which figures, done in an almost incinerated black, struggle to carry others. In retrospect, Goodwin’s work has been a search for a language to articulate primal emotions and experience. She has now mastered that language, which she uses with poetic imagination and a passionate intensity. What the show demonstrates is that Goodwin is not only a late starter but someone whose art is even now gaining strength.
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