Betty Goodwin (1923 – 2008), one of Canada’s most accomplished and influential artists, drew on the skin of things. She made art with flattened shrouds of disembodied clothes, old vests pressed into paper like dried flowers. She stitched scars onto a black tarpaulin that hangs folded, with ropes dangling, like a stage curtain. She worked dark bruises into paper and Mylar. And in her body of work, the body was always making itself felt, as a vessel of memory, the flesh smudged by love or torture. She drew swimmers who may or may not be drowning. Bodies that could be floating or falling. Her works display resilient beauty and openness, resonating with echoes of the work being done and undone – the shuddering rhythm of countless erasures, and the presence of penciled figures left unerased from early drafts, like pictographs from past lives.
Goodwin tended to latch onto an icon – a tarpaulin, a bed, a megaphone – and work it into the ground with a loving touch. Her studio was filled with objects waiting to be used – stones, feathers, industrial artifacts – and her work included metal sculptures and walled installations of aromatic wax. Her wounded souls would not be out of place in the existential barrens of Atom Egoyan’s films or the fiction of Anne Michaels. In fact, the author of Fugitive Pieces penned the introduction to the AGO’s Goodwin catalogue. “Her figures,” writes Michaels, “are profoundly homeless, in a terrible exile . . . in a zone without landscape . . . a featureless geography.”
Her powerful works about death, loss and the traces of life have influenced a generation of Canadian artists. “Her work is not a catalogue of distress,” Michaels writes, but “a record of hope in its most distilled form, potent and fiercely earned.”
Both the themes and images Goodwin used in her work, and the fact that they are continually reiterated, suggest a focus on ideas of memorialization and mourning. Goodwin herself wrote that “there is something else, something more remote than the memory of objects, that I wish to attain. I mean a record of feelings and sensations. Everybody has histories of this kind, whether they know it or not. But I don’t want to relate my history through words.”
Betty Goodwin: Work Notes, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, features more than 100 of the artist’s sketchbooks from the AGO’s special collections, displaying the artists thought process and ideas in relation to her finished works, of which a selected few will be on display. The exhibition runs until January 2, 2011.
Images: Tarpaulin No. 3 and Swimmer No. 3 from National Gallery of Canada – Cybermuse.