Monday 23 June 2014

Catherine Goodman - Portraits from Life at the National Portrait Gallery London

Right before the buzz of the BP Portrait Award the NPG has opened a new display featuring a series of portraits by Catherine Goodman, together with a a few of her drawings.
Since Goodman won the BP Award in 2002 she has exhibited regularly with galleries such as Marlborough and Colnaghi. She has helped found the Prince of Wales Drawing School, in which she has retained the high profile role of artistic director (the person who keeps the focus on the "art" part of the institution).

   The show at the NPG is intense and emotional. The portraits are almost all close ups, the head bigger than life size, the brushwork layered and energetic, respecting both the form and the surface of the canvas; the palette is rich with realistic skin tones punctuated by marks in saturated colour.

     There is only one large self portrait in the show, and is the only painting in which the viewer is confronted and looked at straight in the eyes. In all the other portraits the sitters' glaze is turned away, they seem to be staring directly at their own life.

  The show includes some very haunting drawings. In the last number of Intelligent Life ( quarterly magazine of the Economist) I read a beautiful article on Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, a community for the mentally disabled that has now branches around the whole world. The article describes the deeply moving and life-changing experience of spending time as a volunteer in these houses and as I looked at Goodman's drawing made in one of L'Arche houses I found the same sentiment expressed in the pages of her sketchbook. While the large paintings expand and encompass a long span of time, the constrictive size of the paper and the instantaneous nature of the drawings compress emotions into these powerful works full of pain, compassion, love and respect.

  Portraits have always been at the core of British painting, and in recent years Hockney, Auerbach and Freud have taken the genre to both a highest artistic standard and a wide level of popularity.    Goodman follows in their steps with a, yes I'm stereotyping, womanly capacity of empathising with her sitters. As with Goodman, Freud and Auerbach required quite an extraordinary number of sittings for each portrait, some going on on for decades. I can't help feeling, looking at the paintings, that there is a process of subjugation going on there.
Freud's sitter look mostly gloomy and obliging, Auerbach's have their outside appearance obliterated as he explores their humanness. Goodman's sitter on the other hand seem to have a much more active if not democratic role in the work of art, which looks like a cooperation between two human beings rather than a long ordeal one is submitting the other to. The process result in a series of works that speak about painting, life, beauty, memories, engagement.

  I had the chance of meeting Goodman a few years ago. It was at a dinner party, so not the right place to ask lots of questions. Anyway it was soon after the 2010 BP show and she remembered my painting there. She said it looked "sladeish" ( as per the Slade School of art in London) but she didn't recognise my name as one of the students there. She had in fact correctly identified the influence of Uglow in my work, perhaps less strong now. She then asked me about my practice and I said I was painting still life and working from the model. At that point she said something that I have not really appreciated until later on, taken as I was by learning to paint the figure, she warned me against the objectification of women's body.
I hadn't paid much attention but then it became evident to me the danger of picking up, from Uglow's work, the way he painted girls like soul-less bodies, pieces of meat splayed on a table. I don't have many chances to paint the nude, but looking back I can see that my best portraits from models are done from those I have painted several times over the course of years, people I care for, and this now is something I pay attention to in my work and also in other artist's.

     Read the introduction to the show,  an interview with the artist and an essay by William Feaver here . It is clear from the sitters and the contributions to the show's catalogue that Goodman enjoys support from many prominent members of society, but her inspiring work and her dedicated art practice deserve to be more widely known and celebrated.

1 comment:

Dennis Spicer said...

I saw this show whilst visiting London. They are truley impressive works both for their size, method of working and insight into the sitters. Well recommend it.