While I have seen Goodman’s self-portraits numerous times, the unlikely combination of raw pathos and tenderness always stops me in my tracks.
by John Yau
Brenda Goodman has been defining a singular path in painting at least since 1973, when she had her first exhibition in Detroit. From the paintings done around this time, it is immediately evident that Goodman was uninterested in either aligning herself with any of the styles going on around her or in making polite, palatable views. That early testimony to her fearlessness — which is still going strong — is apparent in the eight works done between 1974 and 2006 in the exhibition Brenda Goodman: Self-Portraits at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (January 11 – February 12, 2022).
While I have seen these and related self-portraits numerous times, as well as previously written about Goodman’s pursuit of this subject, the unlikely combination of raw pathos and tenderness always stops me in my tracks. The other thing that brings me up short is Goodman’s preoccupation with the body in tandem with her audacious rejection of portraiture based on likeness and the face. Finally, at a time when the art world was focused on the literal, Goodman seems to have drawn inspiration from Symbolists such as Alfred Kubin.
In the first of three small galleries, the viewer sees “Self-Portrait 1” (1974), “Self-Portrait 55” (2006), and “Self-Portrait 4A” (1994). If, as the numbering indicates, Goodman did at least 55 self-portraits between 1974 and 2006, a monograph devoted solely to this aspect of her work is long overdue.
“Self-Portrait 1” depicts, in a palette of mostly grays and dirty whites, a large, misshapen conical structure balanced on its point in a small room. On top of the cone is a triangular shape (think a dark gray pizza slice), which is topped by two bleeding, bloodshot eyes (think taco shaped) and a folded, dark red, tongue-like shape that sticks out from under the front end. Part of the front of the cone’s chest has been peeled back, exposing stacks of what look like marshmallows. We also see a single breast protruding from the cone and a huge, brightly striped necktie hanging down to the floor. Behind this creature a blank sheet of paper has been taped to the wall. This is a portrait of the artist with horns, baring her heart to reveal that she is full of marshmallows.
In the diptych “Self-Portrait 4A,” again working in a palette of dirty whites, Goodman portrays an oversized creature with skinny arms and a small head, earless and hairless, with the eyes placed on the far edges of the face, cramming its open red maw with gobs of paint. This is a portrait of the starving artist, of feeling both abject and overcome with a ravenous, unrestrained hunger for self-discovery.
Goodman is the great psychologically driven portraitist of the past 50 years. No other American artist I can think of comes close to exposing their extreme psychic states to such a degree, and yet the paintings come across as selfless in their subjectivity. That is why they are so powerful. They don’t seem to be about an individual named “Brenda Goodman,” but about many people. With “Self Portrait 4A” Goodman has taken the cliché of the “starving artist” and shown how real it is. This is her genius. She has taken a psychological state that society has trivialized by turning it into cliché and reinvigorated it with a visceral visual power.
In “Self-Portrait 55” (2006), the most recent work in this selection, Goodman depicts a whitish, naked figure in the lower left-hand corner, scrunched up like Rodin’s “The Thinker,” but without a pedestal and more bent over. Is the figure cramming entrails of red paint into its mouth or vomiting up its insides, or both? On three narrow shelves, which extend forward from the painting’s densely covered brown surface, the artist has piled dried paint that seems to have been scraped off a palette. The bottom shelf is filled with red, yellow, and blue, while the middle shelf is mostly red. On the uppermost shelf, an irregular cube of red paint sits.
A shelf also runs along the painting’s bottom edge. At the far end of it, opposite the figure, Goodman has deposited a pile of different-colored paint that is dominated by brown, which is the color of the entire painting. Why is the figure in this awkward pose, seemingly balanced on the toes of one foot? What does that smear of brown paint just below its butt signify? Is Goodman making a connection between paint, sustenance, and excrement? By linking the inescapable cycle of consumption and the production of waste with painting and paint, she proposes that torment is commonplace and unavoidable. If Romanticism devolved into the cult of the individual, Goodman transforms aspects of it into something larger and more commonplace than herself. Her work stands in sharp and critical contrast to the model of the male genius, which the art world continues to promote and worship.
The five works in the second gallery underscore Goodman’s adventurousness, as well as her ability to get at unsettling psychological states without privileging herself or her suffering as special. In “Self-Portrait 4” (2004), a nude zaftig woman holding wet, dripping paintbrushes is standing in a bare off-white room, her face covered with a veil of gray paint in which two eyeholes are suggested. She can see us, but we cannot see her, even though she is completely exposed.
I cannot see Goodman’s painting without recalling Lucian Freud’s full-length nude self portrait, “Painter Working, Reflection” (1993), which many British critics believe to be his greatest self-portrait. While I have no disagreement with English critics about this assessment, I do wonder if they (or their American counterparts) could look openly at Goodman’s self-portraits, particularly “Self-Portrait 4,” and see how it rejects the assumptions about resemblance and self-drama that inform Freud’s painting. Is it possible to see these two paintings in dialogue or will critics cling to the old hierarchies and not examine them in the light of each other? It is one thing to depict yourself as an aging male, and another to show yourself as an overweight, middle-aged woman whose face cannot be seen. The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of Freud’s self-portraits as a stand-alone element of his work, but no New York museum has done that for Goodman — and why not? Maybe the time has come. Lest we forget, Goodman’s self-portraits preceded those of Jenny Saville and should be seen as the groundbreaker.
As I see it, in her self-portraits Goodman both rejects convention, particularly regarding resemblance, and clears an unmistakable space for herself. In that space she’s made works as radically different as the large graphite and pastel on paper “Self-Portrait 33” (2006) and the two paintings “Self-Portrait 17” and “Self-Portrait 20” (both 2005).
In the drawing Goodman depicts a frontal view of the torso from the neck to the top of the crotch. Dominated by blacks and grays, with hints of bilious green peeking through, the figure inhabits a gloomy world that we associate with Symbolism and artists such as Odilon Redon and Alfred Kubin. What turns this drawing into something more is the conspicuous, unexplained red stain where the heart is located. Goodman’s willingness to court the saccharine or the cliché without ever entering into those domains is one of the strengths of her work: she is not afraid of wearing her heart on her sleeve.
In “Self Portrait 17,” a woman floats on her back in the middle ground of a sea populated by a large cluster of hunched over figures in the foreground. Crouched atop the woman’s body are a group of black figures, which look like a cross between primates, inquisitors, and penguins. One or two (it is hard to tell) are on the far left, on her breast and sternum, while another group is huddled on her thighs and crotch. It is impossible to satisfactorily interpret what is going on. Beyond them and the floating woman are the ghostly echoes of heads. On the simplest level, this painting is about being overwhelmed and haunted, but in the end something about it goes beyond my elemental observation and touches a nerve, as well as stirs up something inchoate.
“Self-Portrait 20” is a slightly elevated view of the nude artist standing in her studio, surrounded by giant versions of her paintings and stretchers. I think it is telling that the painting Goodman directs our attention toward is similar to the gorging figure in “Self-Portrait 4A,” in the first gallery. In the extreme foreground is the top of another painting, which spans most of “Self-Portrait 20”’s bottom edge. This becomes a barrier between the viewer and the artist and interior of her studio. We can see into the studio but we feel as if we cannot enter. The eye, you might say, becomes separate from the body.
A number of critics have underscored that these paintings are about self-loathing, as they were done when the artist was significantly and unhealthily overweight. Each time I have read this view of Goodman’s work, I am compelled to ask: who among us has not experienced self-loathing and body image problems? The darkness of Goodman’s art is something that we all share.
Brenda Goodman: Self-Portraits continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 12.
John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the… More by John Yau