Dr Claudia Tobin, 'the light gets in', Marlborough Fine Art, 2019
“Colour is the deeds and suffering of light”
“There is a crack in everything that you can put together, physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is”
This is a group of paintings that summon hope in darkness, allow cracks or fissures to be openings for the imagination, chinks in the armour, ways of getting in and seeing more: in short, a group of paintings that let the light in.
Here is the creaturely and the human, the tame and the wild close together. The large blue Hanuman figure flicking its tail, the portraits set in landscapes known and imagined, the monkey on horseback, the reworking of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon.
These works were born out of Goodman’s six-month residency in 2018 at Hauser & Wirth gallery in the Somerset countryside of south west England. This exhibition sees her work articulating new freedoms and a confidence in heightened colour, looser brushwork and a play with surface texture that marks a period of experimentation. Goodman is working on a larger scale, creating big paintings you want to step into, dive into. If she found a sense of liberation in this period of retreat into the countryside, it seems to have accelerated a process which began several years ago. The parameters of the ever-present landscapes have widened, and the weighty materiality and texture of the object world—the world of interiors—have turned inside out.
When I visited Goodman’s studio in Somerset I was struck by the relationship between two images—Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto and Hanuman the Hindu monkey-god—pinned up side by side. These images come from radically different cultural worlds: early Renaissance Italy and the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, but they both point to birth, creation and a mysterious, half-hidden energy. They make visually manifest the point where light gets in. The Madonna’s hand tenderly resting on the slip of fabric opening in her dress draws attention to the birth to come. The Hanuman figure reveals his glowing open heart in which Sita and Rama are cradled from harm. These are images with connections to cultural traditions and landscapes Goodman knows well. For over a decade she has painted in the Tuscan hamlet of Pignano between Siena and Florence and at a hill station in the Himalayas.
Benedict and Balthazar, 2017-19
The Madonna del Parto and Hanuman images have a curious lingering power over the imagination. We see their traces in Goodman’s recent series of paintings, transformed into the motif of fissures and heart shaped openings and in the gesture of hands at the heart shared by several of her figures. They reveal her wider concern with vulnerability and imperfection as a source of light. She paints several canvases at once, and there are associative connections between them, even as they conjure different landscapes, both real and fictional. In Benedict and Balthazar the pulsating orange mark on the stomach of the seated figure evokes the Hindu practice of marking sacred chakra points with red or orange dye. The stomach is concave—we are looking into the body of the young man with his eyes focused beyond the viewer, his thoughts inaccessible. The orange mark was the defining moment of completion in making this painting, which has had a long gestation. The calligraphic orange or red line is a feature of these works. Tracing over the image creates a shift between flat surface and the illusion of depth—in a sense it is a play with time, a kind of after-image. The figure of the young man was painted from life, but around him is a swirling snowy landscape which invites access into imagined worlds. Perhaps the scene was conjured from Dostoyevsky’s epic novel The Brothers Karamazov, which the artist and sitter were listening to as the painting evolved. But it also pulls us into the world of film, as the mournful head of the donkey looking over the young man’s shoulder was drawn from Balthazar, a French film by Robert Bresson. The film traces the parallel lives of a young girl and her beloved donkey, Balthazar, both of them innocent and much abused. As in many of Goodman’s paintings, she makes unlikely connections between people and animals, and places known or mythologised. The painting of the tree in the Indian landscape bears a carving of the Hanuman heart and it evokes a pair of eyes staring out from either side: a seeing tree. This landscape, like many of Goodman’s, is feeling, seeing, and it bears a wound—a human mark and a sacred sign—which identifies its sentience and spiritual meaning.
The painting of the Hanuman figure came later in this series. Drawn from a Calicut image, it is a commanding presence with a huge and boldly outlined form and an open pulsating heart. In a sense it is the centrepiece of this group of works. Real and unreal, creaturely and mythical, a strong limbed dancer-like figure that reaches the viewer as a still point in this series, meditative and yet ready to spring. Hanuman is a god who can shift shape and form (in the Ramayana he grows to the size of a mountain and shrinks to an ant), and he combines a mosaic of features from different species: the arched tail and face of the monkey, and the stance of the human being.
The human figures in Goodman’s paintings have a similarly metamorphic quality. In her 2016 exhibition of landscapes there were visitations of figures or inferred presences, often lost in the process of making. In her recent work she increasingly uses collage to realise and make visible a process that previously took place in the imagination. She experiments in creating new images on her iPad from existing drawings by juxtaposing imagined scenes with figures drawn from life. Her painting of Loic was born out of this act of assemblage. The figure is of a young man whom Goodman has visited and drawn for many years at the L’Arche community in France. He is illuminated in the foreground alongside the house where she has often stayed in Manali. But rather than a simple juxtaposition—a placing side by side—it feels like a connection has been made, and not simply between places and people who are important to the artist, or with whom she has a profound emotional connection, but between the inner worlds of each. Something draws the two together. Here Loic, who cannot walk or communicate through language, travels and inhabits a new and remote Indian landscape. The solitary timber house is a kind of visual metaphor for his body, which is simply the shelter for his inner life. He holds his hands one open and one closed at his heart. Next to him, we see the dark doorway of the hut. The horizon flashes, darkens and is streaked with light.
Collage of Loic created by Catherine Goodman, using her iPad
‘Attention is the beginning of devotion’, writes the American poet Mary Oliver, who is much admired by Goodman. A special kind of empathetic attention has shaped her painting’s silent, receptive encounter with what might seem to be vulnerability but turns out to be a form of light. Different kinds of encounter are found in her paintings of children: the young girl lying in happy abandonment in the warm folds of the Tuscan landscape, or the three girls painted with the bright, untamed colours of childhood, absorbed in their own imaginative lives and free of self-consciousness. The Girls is a painting which resists saying too much: the three sisters are seen close-up but on their own terms and strikingly—in their own scale. The portrait of the cat with its lusciously painted back to the viewer says something different as we experience how much can be read from the intensity of attention concentrated in that watchful head.
The work of piecing narratives together or making the unconscious visible is made explicit in Goodman’s collaged drawings, seen here alongside the paintings. In its ability to make different versions of past and present meet, collage is also akin to the montage and editing of the filmmaker. Goodman frequently works from film, drawing from the freeze frames of great filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Satyajit Ray. It is tempting to connect this practice with the framing device in her recent works, where the images are bounded in their last moments of completion by a bold crimson or blue painted frame. In a sense the artist is resisting the linearity and unfolding temporality of the medium of film and harnessing what she calls ‘the genius eye’ of great filmmakers to create compositions for painting. Interestingly, it is the animal rather than human characters drawn from film that often live on in her imagination and reappear in the frames of her canvases. They are often companions of some sort: the young man with the donkey looking over his shoulder in Benedict and Balthazar; the monkey clinging to the pony’s back drawn from Herzog’s 1974 film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. The painting of the beekeeper is the monochrome version of a pair of recent works (the other honey-hued), representing the father who finds solace in his bees in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive of 1973. The hooded figure is at first unsettling, but his cradling gesture signifies his role as guardian of the bees.
The nudes in this group of paintings reveal strong connections to Goodman’s Eve series, exhibited at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset through the spring of 2019. Addressing the archetypal subject of Eve in our contemporary moment of revitalised feminism, they are portraits of womanhood in different moods and forms. What is striking is that none of them feel posed or passive; rather, they allow us to witness a moment drawn from a larger narrative. In one painting from the Eve series, we find the resolutely physical form of active womanhood, her contours forming a geometric diagonal pattern that links her with the tree. Is she resting against the tree or exerting her strength to push upon it? If she is Eve hiding in the Garden of Eden, there is no shame in her hiding, she is full of energy—the calligraphic ripples of red and orange over her legs and arms reiterating her readiness for movement. How different is her posture, then, to the nude at rest lying on her back in Owl and the Pussycat. This woman is seen in high saturation colour, painted in hot glowing tones without mixing a note of white. As we become accustomed to the dynamic surface of the canvas a tangle of explosive brushwork in the left corner resolves itself into the protruding beak and huge kaleidoscopic eyes of an owl. Is the owl a predator or protector? And what kind of watchfulness does it bring to the scene? If the painting explores that ever-troublesome question of the ‘gaze’ and raises the spectres of art history, we are left to make up our own minds. For me, there was a kinship between the owl and the insistent presence of the rows of coloured masks that Goodman collected in India, and which peer down from a shelf in her studio. The painting’s nursery-rhyme title also hints at an element of play and performance: the owl’s piercing gaze meets the small, curled form of the pussycat, nestled beside the resting woman. Perhaps they are both her spirit animals—symbols of wisdom, independence and companionship.
Staging is at work too in the pair of paintings from one of Goodman’s touchstone inspirations in the National Gallery, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-9). The painting represents a narrative from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a moment of trespass when the hunter Actaeon bursts in on the goddess Diana while she is bathing with her nymphs. We are in familiar territory because this is a painting Goodman has returned to and drawn from over many years—the practice of drawing from life, art and the imagination being at the root of her practice. She has found herself attracted to the late works of Titian, finding in them a vulnerability which she explores in this painting of a detail from Diana and Actaeon. She chooses to represent Diana and the woman who is her protector, shielding her from Actaeon’s implied yet unseen gaze. But if Diana is exposed, she is also proud and defiant in her beauty, and the pair are almost dancing, cradled together within the twisting ropes and bands of colour that evoke the opulent textiles of Titian’s Venice.
In his Theory of Colour (1810), Goethe wrote about the active dialectic of dark and light from which colour emerges. Many of the works in this series have emerged as pairs, and here the black and white figures articulate energy in their meeting—their dance—in this moment of vulnerability and provocation. Goodman’s paintings can be gathered together around a sense that ‘the light gets in’, as Leonard Cohen sang in his Anthem from which the exhibition takes its title, but they also speak to something expressed by Wendell Berry, the American poet of endangered wilderness whose work the artist often turns to reading in her studio. On my visit I chanced upon one of his ‘Sabbath Poems’ in The Peace of Wild Things, where almost overcome by man’s devastation of the natural world, Berry urges us to notice:
And yet the light comes.
And yet the light is here.
Dr Claudia Tobin is a writer and curator specialising in modern literature and visual cultures. She currently holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Cambridge and is a Research Associate at Jesus College. Her first book Still Life and Modernism will be published in early 2020.