The Art of Betty Goodwin

208 pages,
ISBN: 1550546503

Post Your Opinion
Charcoal, wax, oil pastel, the inky groan froth and blood
by Tim Christian

"Overnight, the universe has lost its center and now in the morning it has any number of centers. Now any point in the universe may be taken as center. Because, suddenly there's plenty of room."

(Bertold Brecht as quoted in The Art of Betty Goodwin)

For over fifty years, Betty Goodwin has been garnering international renown for her efforts in creating art that uses the shape and scale of the human body as a starting point. She broke onto the contemporary art scene in the late sixties with her black-and-white etchings of clothing-the Vest series, for example-which evoked a body's presence while declaring its absence. Her most recognizable pieces are her drawings: lines erased, scratched, and smudged onto a translucent surface, such as paper or mylar, and suspending figures in and over washes of colour.

The Art of Betty Goodwin was released in conjunction with and in commemoration of the exhibition of the same name at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This is not a picture book or catalogue: it seeks to elucidate the artwork. Mixing scholarly analysis with personal anecdote, poetic musings with factual record, the book presents its insights through text, illustrating them with reproductions of the artwork. The underlying assumption is that the essence of Goodwin's art can be deduced through the study of her life and career as a comprehensive whole. This is a curious reversal of the artist's project-the inducement of general or universal feelings from the specific image-and augments the irony implicit in the attempt to resolve and capture in words the art that attempts to communicate in images.

Can we, as readers, expect some feeling of the artwork to spring from the letters and pictures on the pages of this book the way that an impression of a Goodwin drawing gathers and leaps at us from the lines and erasures and washed fields of colour on paper? Do evidence, analysis, and argument have any hope of evoking the ephemeral reality of Goodwin's work? Of bringing us closer to an understanding of her art? The book provides us with several pathways into the artist's project-many voices, many centres-and we become aware of the complexity of both her task and the task we face in comprehending it. Perhaps what we want to find becomes as important as what is offered.

Matthew Teitelbaum, Director of the AGO and the book's co-editor, offers an essay on the early work of Betty Goodwin. He presents his arguments in full stride and places the work firmly within an historical context. "At the centre of Goodwin's project as an artist," we are told, "lies the constant reminder of inexplicable events, events which elicit feelings so intense that the moorings to which we attach our understanding of the world seem to have given way". The artist "binds such feelings and unites fragments of consciousness that fail to cohere without her". Teitelbaum identifies remembrance-namely, "that images can encapsulate states of remembering"-as a key to Goodwin's work, and links this idea to the act of mourning: loss based in "poignant experience". Implicit in both the act of mourning and the creative act is the desire to connect with an empathetic audience. The author acts as a confident guide, neatly pulling his ideas together and grounding them in the evidence of Goodwin's art: "Her drawn line-erased, repositioned, set to paper with the varied pressure of her hand-seems always to be coming and returning to a place we cannot see beneath the surface of the paper itself. The pencil makes stops and starts, repeats itself to echo form, contrasting, as the state of mourning does, intense clarity with uncertainty".

The Art of Betty Goodwin presents the artist's voice in an interview with Jessica Bradley, Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGO and co-editor of the book. The two slip comfortably from topic to topic, quickly covering the breadth of the artist's career. Goodwin's voice is not didactic: she gives clues about her art through a discussion of her methods. We become very aware of the will and determination necessary to her pursuit of images: "You push and push and push, and there's a moment at which the work begins to pull you. You take a deep breath and figure, `This is the best I can do.'" About her drawing she says, "Nothing ever comes for me on the first lines or effort. It is the erasing that is as much a part of the work as the pencil or the oil stick... For me, it is very much a matter of trying again and again." We are made aware of the struggle, the pain, the indeterminacy, and the waiting involved in the shaping of her images. Form and process are entwined; a sense of passage is important to Goodwin; the unexpected is integral. We are given hints of an essential struggle between the conscious and the unconscious, between the artist and her means, between intent and result. Again, we are led by a confident and familiar guide: Bradley frames the interview with personal anecdotes, confessional in tone, illustrating her relationship to the artist and the work. We are witness to shared experience.

Rober Racine shares an emotional and sympathetic account of an encounter with Goodwin's art. He slips into a poetic, almost hallucinatory state. A list of the materials alone makes him dream: "...charcoal powder, wax, oil pastel, pastel, graphite and adhesive tape on Transpagra. This quasi-alchemical `mixture' engenders discarded bodies, the butt-end of limbs". Surrounded by the creatures of Goodwin's art, Racine is prompted to equate the electric whispers he hears from the ears of fellow viewers "laden with audio-guides" to "the very image of an inky groan, froth and blood gushing ceaselessly from the artist's subjects". Racine uses a familiar rhetorical device (one practically universal to this book)-the parameters of extremes-in his attempt to transcribe his experience into words. He asks: "Is this communication masculine or feminine? Is it human or animal? [Is it] in colour or in black and white? Is it from the left or from the right? Does it ascend or does it descend? Sonorous or musical?" He sees the paradox, the embrace of contradictory extremes, as the framework of Goodwin's art. And he uses a language fuelled by the comparison of diametrical opposites to build understanding. But, "[f]inally," he says, "all this is of no importance... People have wept looking at Carbon. Why? There is no answer to this question. The work is simply human. Like it or not, there is a life-force. And that is what is important". Racine does not speak for us; he speaks for the artwork; and we know exactly where he stands.

There are two other sections in The Art of Betty Goodwin: the brief, earnest introduction by Anne Michaels, and the vast chronology, 1923-1998, compiled by Anne-Marie Ninacs. The chronology, which makes up a third of the book, links key biographical facts and an exhibition history with notes and writings by the artist and excerpts from interviews, articles, and reviews.

Part of the book's impetus is to bring to public awareness the significance of Goodwin's art. What role does direct contact with the art play? How does a society carry the memory of significant individuals? We can be reassured by the fact that the book and the exhibition it commemorates are indicative of a public resolve to preserve the work, and specifically, of the AGO's commitment to this artist. It would be hard to be satisfied with this book without direct access to the art itself.

The life and art of Betty Goodwin stand as a testament to the power of personal experience and its ability to bridge the distance between individual and world. How does an individual carry and communicate the memory of experience, and specifically the encounter with the inexplicable, with the strange and beautiful things? This is the artist's project: the space, the capacity of memory, can be greatly increased, the substance and experience of loss immeasurably enhanced, through art.

The tone of The Art of Betty Goodwin is one of reverence for the determined, courageous, and forthright accomplishments of the artist. The accolades and advocacy are earned. The accumulation of text propels us towards this understanding-the repetition of phrases and opinions, of arguments and analogy, that build with the mantra-like effect towards consensus, allow us a firm foothold. Where we go afterwards is up to us. 

Tim Christian is an artist.


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