Betty Goodwin continues to be a model for emulation for innumerable young artists. When she passed away late last year at the age of 85, she was still Canada’s quintessential artist of anxiety, her figuration never approaching sweetness or light. Indeed, Goodwin’s huge swimmers, rendered with terrific virtuosity in oils, pastels and graphite on huge sheets of vellum, are potent portraits of unease in vitro.
Over the course of her career, the Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal amassed a body of works that is not only wonderfully representative of Goodwin’s practice but remains a lovely memorial to her spirit. The 40 works exhibited followed her career from printmaking (her renowned ‘vest’ prints from 1973) to works on paper, painting, sculpture and installation. The tenderness of the prints, based on articles of clothing such as vests, gloves and hats, is still felt in counterpoint to her vast rendered tarps – literally tarpaulins on which she has worked – which speak of both human skin and scar tissue.
Goodwin’s enduring themes – fragility, empathy, self, absence – are all here and their expression in her work has not been blunted by the passage of time. Indeed, it was clear that the themes of death and the Other in her figurative language were longstanding and interwoven. With recent outrages like torture in Abu Ghraib and the shooting of innocents in Iran very much in mind, such themes have strong resonances. Goodwin was an artist that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would have loved – she, too, speaks eloquently of both alterity and the body, death and transcendence.
In a work such as Untitled (Nerves) No. 5 (1993), is the prone figure in the upper quadrant a cadaver? Do the roots that penetrate its epidermis from below suggest the return of flesh to ashes, to dust? It is hard not to think of them as being a modern-day embodiment of the Death Demon or Death Being archetype as discussed in analytical psychology. Those tendrils reaching upwards through the dark ground seem fraught with almost palpable menace. The Killer Being was construed as (and this from its earliest beginnings in the history of the human psyche) shrouded and working under cover of darkness. For example, it was usually seen as hiding in or under the earth – a potent and malign entity with a long reach, ready to eviscerate with its claws and devour the corpses of the dead. Such an entity, such an image, surely arose from an inherent human and hermeneutic need to understand the world, to come to terms with the verities of our existence. Goodwin provides her viewers with such inner images because she had herself confronted the tremendum, the nameless Other, in her own life. (She tragically lost a child.)
There is a sense of organic growth in Goodwin’s démarche, and as we follow her progress through different media, we can see her finding immanent promise in her materials, new idioms for her voice. Her continuing experimentation with her materials and the support was, after all, as much a leitmotif of the work as its themes. Betty Goodwin may be gone but her work remains, a luminous testament to artistic integrity and tenacity.