The space at the University of Kentucky Art Museum taken over by Mike Goodlett and Hunter Stamps for their show “Body Language” is all white light, white walls and ceiling, delivering microcosmic grandeur, with the floor holding most of the merchandise. The merch here are sculptures, some ceramic, some plastic and concrete, and they all seem to be humming different little mysterious tunes as you walk past them. The music is not music, though; it’s a new form of silence, manufactured by each little monument and doodad. A music that can hum itself into geometry and then into dream and back out into warehouse, reality, nowhere.
Installation view, “Body Language: Hunter Stamps and Mike Goodlett”, University of Kentucky Art Museum
The humble materials seem to dictate that feeling of nowhere, but also give you something delightful to hold onto. In Stamps’ case, materials run the gamut from ceramic to rubber, glazed stoneware to encaustic. They are handsomely grotesque and grotesquely handsome totems dedicated to discovering what it means to be abandoned. Stamps creates a catalog of carapaces and nests and body parts no longer in use, monumentally devoid and yet somehow beautifully decorative because of the obsessive nature of their creation.
Hunter Stamps, “Naked Lunch”, clay – Photo by Keith Banner
One piece, titled “Naked Lunch,” honors the icky, off-kilter 1991 movie David Cronenberg made based on William S. Burroughs’ icky messed-up novel, a terracotta paean to stylized verbal flourishes, but also baroque and stylish enough to pass as a vase. “Utterance” is a chunk of a Philip Guston painting come to life so it can die a miserable, beautiful death. Kind of like a giant, malformed ruby-slipper, the ceramic and rubber effigy accesses the tongue as its inspiration, but there’s a weariness to its positioning, like this big sad tongue just got back from war.
Hunter Stamps, “Enrapture II”, glazed ceramic, 28″X14″x14″ – Photo courtesy of the artist
Hunter Stamps, “Enrapture II”, glazed ceramic, 28″X14″x14″ – Photo courtesy of the artist
“Enrapture II,” a glazed ceramic riff on sci-fi horror tentacles freezing into stasis, is both a celebration of fierce otherworldliness and a quiet meditation on nature once removed. When you approach it, it seems to harden into itself from the other state it is in when you are not looking. That transformative feeling is built into a lot of Stamps’ works: they seem to be gorgeous props in some kind of big-budget nightmare, like John Carpenter’s 1982 magnum latex opus “The Thing” molecularly fusing with the detritus and emotions inside every 21st Century skull.
Installation view, “Body Language: Hunter Stamps and Mike Goodlett”, University of Kentucky Art Museum
Mike Goodlett’s works play off Stamps’ theatrical body horror perfectly; they have a plush and sordid sarcasm built into their solid concrete souls, as if Hello Kitty and R. Crumb had babies. Playfully adorned in muted nursery hues, they are intense cartoons evaluating the atmosphere, controlling whatever environment they occupy with their passive-aggressive cuteness and de Chirico anonymity. The lovely and dour “Flower of My Secret,” made of plain old concrete and paint, hovers over itself with a cobra-like menace, and yet offers a sort of hardened comfort, a mummified sensuality. “Tiny Dancer,” made of hydrostone, paint and Mason stain, is a tombstone meshed with dessert, its sweetness overcome by its pallor, its finish basking in the unfinished qualities of its unnerving neck brace, its globular antennae. You feel talked to and ignored at the same time.
Mike Goodlett, “Sir Lancelot”, 2019, concrete, hydrostone, oil based paint – Photo by Keith Banner
Another hydrostone and concrete masterpiece, “Sir Lancelot” references a dildo, an ashtray, and the supple shoulders of a 1920s mannequin, all in service to creating an object nothing can land on, meaning can’t find. It’s something meant to be worshipped, but also has a tough ironic sheen, a placidity earned from being warehoused within itself. It ain’t going anywhere, but it’s been all over the universe, glossy and crazy and very quiet.
Michael Goodlett, “Pearl”, 2019, concrete, hydrostone, oil based paint – Photo by Keith Banner
Stamps and Goodlett have packaged their two-person gig under the title “Body Language,” pulling together two opposing forces in service to the absurdity of their pursuit: where does the body end and language begin? How can language ever really describe and/or contain the body with all its organs and tumors and bones, oh my?
The show itself could be likened to both a fulfillment center and a mausoleum, objects breathing and not breathing, curling toward their own version of glamour and also laughing at the way each one of them is dying an undignified death. Goodlett and Stamps have created a Vaudevillian planet together, an Aztec temple on acid, a nightmare toy shop, a landscape populated by creatures and things unnamable, and yet the body language emanating from each piece, ossified through concrete and clay, creates an ongoing and impenetrable narrative. Stories and histories come at you in a foreign language that has never been codified, never written down. All of these objects are refugees, survivors of some absurd holocaust only they know about.
One of the showcase pieces in KMAC Museum’s inaugural triennial survey of contemporary art in Kentucky (up through December 1, 2019) is a trio of sumptuous, pretty, scary paintings by Vian Sora, an artist currently living and working in Louisville, and originally from Baghdad, Iraq. According to the wall-text, in the three paintings Sora “employs expressive painterly abstraction as a means to convey the emotional and psychological trauma brought on by her time living in and fleeing from her home in war-torn Baghdad.”
Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured on right wall is Vian Sora’s “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60″ x 85″
All that’s true, I’m sure, but witnessing the gorgeousness of the three paintings on site is an altogether aesthetic experience, not exactly free from trauma, but stubbornly transcendent, referencing what art can do when it’s not tethered to actuality, even though it is made in response to what has actually happened.
The wall-text helps you navigate the reasons why Sora has created what’s on the wall, but it can’t explain the moment when you first see Sora’s work and have your own thoughts woven into its blasts of color and form, its Matisse-on-fire urgency and just plain corrosive prettiness. The meaning, in other words, is a negotiation outside of biography and intention: it’s the meeting of memories and ghosts on both sides, the viewed and viewer.
Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured in center on the column is Hunter Stamps, “Engulf”, 2019, Ceramic, 96” x 18” x 24”
To me, that’s what makes visual art so necessary now in a world where every cultural idea/pose/construct/narrative seems to be explained ad nauseum, thanks to social-media posts and pundits, the saturation of explanation becoming the way we not only take in but respond to “the world around us,” even our own biographies and struggles. Visual art, like Sora’s paintings, need to exist outside of information for them to truly register, to foment meaning beyond intention, that moment when you as the viewer see what’s been made, disconnected from root causes, and make the match in your own head.
The wall-text, in other words, just becomes gravy, biography a beautiful afterglow.
“Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his/her hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing,” William Burroughs wrote.
I’ve been reading Burroughs’ fiction and non-fiction lately, as his teeming, satirical, scatological takedowns of addiction and language and America all speak directly to our current times. He was vitally interested in how all forms of art try to get at experience while also dislocating it, finding meaning outside of actualities, so that what we see and read and hear blur reality to the point of it escaping and learning from the escape.
What Burroughs seems to be pointing out in the above quote is that merger of making and observing, creating and taking, an ongoing metaphorical and ontological pollination that gives art its main function, to uncover routes of escape, that impulse to make meaning once the art is outside of the artist’s control, even the artist’s resolve.
Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”. Pictured here is a series by Bette Levy.
“Pollination” is at the center of KMAC Museum’s triennial, subtitled “Crown of Rays,” according to more wall-text introducing the whole gig: “In 1926, Kentucky lawmakers adopted the Goldenrod as the official state flower. From meadows and prairies to polluted city environments, it flourishes, heartily, among wide ranging conditions and soil types.” It turns out “the Crown of Rays is one of over a hundred cultivated plants within the Goldenrod genus, distinctive for its spears of clustered tiny yellow flowers that jut out like sunrays and that recall the halos of saintly iconography.”
“Iconography” is at the core of another triennial artist’s work, in direct contrast to Sora’s abstract-expressionist forms. Jimmy Angelina pulls out cinematic images and poses and places them outside of themselves in a series of itchy, R.Crumb-like drawings all done in black ink and installed horizontally on a banner of black paint. The fractured dramatic moments Angelina depicts erase the meaning of their origins, and transform into a parade of ghosts without progenitors, floating through space like celluloid in search of a projector.
Lori Larusso’s wall-haiku, “A Pastiche of Good Intentions,” is an amazing assortment of food and other iconographies stolen from billboards and magazines and other media. The materials she uses (ribbons and flat acrylics on polymetal panels) lend the whole piece hilarious authenticity while also providing sweet little moments of total smart-ass side-eye. It’s a tour-de-force of meaninglessness finding meaning, kind of like an e. e. cummings poem turned into a Barney’s window display.
Kristin Richard’s installation right across the way from Larusso’s piece, titled “gentle platinum antibacterial essential botanical escapes” is made up of Dawn dish soap, water, glass, laminate, wood, lighting, and form, and pushes forward a sort of laboratory elaboration on the strangeness of what is already there, always there: cabinets, Mason jars, Formica, shelves, all crystallized into a sci-fi moment, an altarpiece to boredom churning into worship. The colors of cleansers become the aesthetic impulse that pulls us through. You can attach all kinds of meanings to Richard’s gorgeous constellation, but at the end of the day it all seems to be orbiting Burroughs’ idea of existence created by observation. Taking banality and transforming it into otherness by simply displaying it outside of its purpose and premise.
“Narrator”, 2019 Oil, acrylic, sand on canvas 30” x 42”
John Harlan Norris’ series of phosphorescent portraits (done in oil, acrylic and sometimes sand on canvas) take banality and dance it into surrealism, abandoning seriousness in favor of play and ingenuity and punchlines that don’t have jokes to go with them. They are basically pictures of ghosts made up of fashion fragments and plastic doodads, all completed in those cold glow-in-the-dark colors that encapsulate pop-culture and pop-art memories of the early 1980s. Each painting is a fever-dream album-cover for synth-pop masterpieces that never got made, and yet still linger in the collective unconscious. “I want my MTV” becomes beautiful oblivion.
Another sort of playfulness, completely serious, comes to fruition in Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s two portraits, both acrylic on Styrofoam, from a series of prints in which he appropriates media images of deported immigrants. The images are distorted somehow into clarity and create meaning without being embedded in it. Sanchez chisels those pictures into Styrofoam, pulling mundane portraiture into a game of insight and integrity. His work in the show provides a witty moment of silence, while also forming the best kind of protest: saying something very clearly without contributing to the overall noise.
“Hiss”, 2019, Match burn on Arches paper (96” x 24” x 33”) and “Shed”, 2019, Vintage quilt, polyester, glass (12′ x 3′ x 28″). Special thanks to the Rockwell Museum and Corning Museum of Glass for making the sculptural glass components possible while Melissa Vendenberg was artist-in-residence at CMoG.
Two snakes intertwined in the middle of the second floor is what I want to end with. Melissa Vandenberg’s “Shed” is a sculpture produced from an old stuffed quilt with what look like glass booties on each end. Snakes of course are so symbolic they almost short-circuit their own symbolism; they can signify associations with all kinds of institutions, religions, nations, myths. What Vandenberg’s piece gets at is a moment of poetry outside of all that chuffah: the symbol is the thing, and the thing is almost terrifying enough to make you want to retreat into symbol. However, the piece has an inherent innocence about it, a Holly-Hobbie texture and context that slides the intertwined reptiles into glassmuzzle dream.
“Dream” is a loaded word and term of course. Historically visual art has often retreated into “dream” during turbulent and insane times, but many of the artists in KMAC Museum’s first triennial take the concept of “dream” and find a way to both comment on and satirize how “meaning” in our meaning-saturated times can sometimes become a way out of literalness and into something entirely outside of a news-feed.
TOPMOST IMAGE: Installation view, KMAC Triennial. Work by Philis Alvic in the foreground.
The best way to take in “Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art” at the 21C Museum and Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, is to make a pilgrimage, the way I did. On a gorgeous Sunday morning, after a beautiful slumber in a plush hotel room, take the elevator to the second floor. When the doors slide open the first thing you see: two fiberglass arms and hands clasped in prayer hanging on a white wall, fingertips spinning a glittery blue basketball. It’s the perfect joke, and yet also the perfect icon. “Icon” in this instance is literal. Hank Willis Thomas’s “Faith” is a sacred, 3-D representation of multiple urges all pulled together into one succinct object and moment, a Harlem Globetrotters hymn to showmanship, a sad and simple reverie on what it takes to be a star when no one thinks you can be one, outside of that one thing they always think you can do.
Hank Willis Thomas (American), “Faith”, 2017, Fiberglass, chameleon auto paint finish
There’s a lot of iconography and showing off going on in “Pop Stars!,” currently on display through May 2020. It’s a big and ambitious show that deserves repeat viewings. Fandom gets recalibrated and turned into strategies for resistance and even a little revolt. Everyday idolatry becomes both a vernacular and endpoint in pieces dedicated to what “Pop” constitutes today: a constellation of superstars, from Britney to Kurt to Kim to Barack to Abraham Lincoln, celebrities of every ilk given treatments in oil, silkscreen, video, neon, and so on. This adoration and awe are laced through the obsessions of artists trying to figure out what it all means and what they can do with it. In an era when everyone has easy access to the apparatus of fame-creation via social media, a super-awareness has bloomed inside people’s skulls and manifested on their screens. Continual, virtual fame-hunting, fame-shaming, fame-faming. Fame is courted, everyone priming themselves for it. It’s what life is. A “true self” is now a selfie. So is everyone’s soul, it seems.
“Pop Stars!” deals with this kind of embarrassment of riches by homing in on all kinds of fames and fortunes and considering both the meaning and meaninglessness of biography, posing, and consummating identity through selling it. R. Luke Dubois’ “(Pop) Icon: Britney” is a video screen ensconced in old-school gold Rococo framing, hidden speakers broadcasting the vocal-fry lullaby known as Brittney’s voice. Britney Spears in the work is a smeared automaton, and yet poignant somehow because of it. Our love for her makes her go into a kaleidoscope of guises; she is a ghost trying to figure us out, giving us what we want, but then again scaring us because of it. Her beauty is an amalgamation of banality and working-on-all-cylinders star power, a fierce need to please smashed up with exhaustion and confusion and hurt. And Dubois’ treatment, while satirical, is reaching for holiness, grabbing at the hem of her electronic garment, wishing Britney could be more than she is, yet wishing, too, for nothing else but what she is.
Graham Dolphin (English), “36 Michael Jackson Songs”, 2006, Ink on record cover
Andy Warhol, the creepy and somehow sweet granddaddy of Pop, its progenitor and mysterious slave, was a devout Catholic. He went to mass obsessively. That spirit of wanting to worship haunts all aspects of this handsome and beautifully arranged exhibit, “Pop” being the driving force,” and “Stars!” being the gasoline that keeps everything moving in fast motion toward oblivion. One of the loveliest works is one of the simplest: Graham Dolphin’s “36 Michael Jackson Songs,” a paean to fan obsession complicated, of course, by Michael’s tragic history as a fading star offering up Jesus Juice. Dolphin in an extra-tiny, OCD script writes out the lyrics to Jackson’s songs on top of the Thriller album cover. The whole thing has a throwaway finesse to it, a combo of doodles and diary entries and monks creating illuminated manuscripts. Yet the purpose seems to be to figure out a meaning that has somehow collapsed, trying to cipher out the joy of what pop used to bring, what it can’t sustain except through scribbling it on itself.
Warhol did the same kind of thing with silkscreens and Polaroids, hunting down the lost memory of pop-culture innocence by making Liz’s lips a smeary red, by turning the tomato soup he loved as a kid into a totem so ripe and rich it becomes a full-on low-brow/high-brow ringtone. He traced the junk in our lives back to a necessary aesthetic impulse; he found God in Brillo Pads and Coca-Cola.
Rebecca Campbell (American), “ Candy Darling”, 2015, Oil on canvas with gold leaf
Rebecca Campbell takes Warhol on with an oil-on-canvas-with-gold-leaf knockout that both eulogizes and diffuses Candy Darling, one of Warhol’s Superstars, in one fell swoop. Titled appropriately enough “Candy Darling,” it’s the Mona Lisa of the show, taking in light and saving it up in its flat yet somehow glorious surface, a painting of a silkscreen of a painting, with a little bit of a nod to Abstract Expressionism as both pun and punishment. Candy Darling’s story gets told without having to tell it, the tragedy of her short life, having died of lymphoma at age 29, revealed through the glamour she craved all her life growing up under the name and gender of James Lawrence Slattery, idolizing Kim Novak and Joan Bennett to the point of wanting to transform lovingly into them. The bleariness of Campbell’s style is reverential and made me go back to the passage in the letter Candy wrote on her deathbed: “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life… I am just so bored with everything. You might say bored to death. Did you know I couldn’t last? I always knew it. I wish I could meet you all again.”
Frances Goodman’s “The Sigh,” a hand stitched, sequins-on-linen swoon, gets at that same lush boredom Candy references – it’s a cool blue pixelated pastiche of old-movie sadness turning toward rapture. The materials Goodman deploys here lend the image both pathos and surface sheen, an eroticism that leans toward a good cry. Alexandre Mazza’s video entry, titled “If It’s Meant to Be Love, May It Brand the Soul!” also finds solace in Eros and shininess. It presents an anonymous and beautiful boxer in all his fatigued, sweaty and never unmoving glory. The whole setup is dedicated to endurance and the routine of trying to stay ahead of passing out, building up resistance to forces beyond your control. It also is a good, old-fashioned lovesick poem from a voyeur to the object of desire. Video flesh as shiny as stained glass, muscles bulging, face intent on not being loved, but still absorbing the inevitable adoration of the camera.
Maybe that is what fame is, Mazza’s video seems to be saying: the connection between viewer and the viewed being continually renewed even while thermodynamics take their toll. “Love” and “sex” and “death” become fetishes and flashes, pictographs and posts, obsessions to be lived through and documented. “Pop Stars!” is a great show that revels in fetish and obsession and flash. Curated with humor and respect, using a through-line that narrates the ecstasy and agony of famousness, both craving it and trying to outsmart it, “Pop Stars!” establishes itself within a context and outside of it. “Pop,” whether signified by art or by commerce, has always been about negating history while fixating on it. The show’s curation pulls together a variety of responses to mass culture and to histories of all kinds, what’s popular and what survives being popular, all these depictions of art and life sashaying from ridiculous to profound, with many works blending it all into gorgeous-nonsense/gorgeous-philosophy, until you start asking yourself, “What’s the difference?” At the end of day, when you leave “Pop Stars!” you feel fulfilled, let in on what it means to survive both boredom and elation. You are captured and then released.
It’s been a week or so since I visited Mike Goodlett in his sanctuary.
“Sanctuary” is one of those go-to words I never go to, but I’m going to it now, after having experienced its manifestation in real life. Where Goodlett makes art is simply that: a place of refuge, of safety, sort of sacred but also a little scary, like a hiding place you go to in dreams when you are being chased by blurry creatures you may not be able to remember but then wake up and try to draw.
In this case, “sanctuary” is an anonymous farmhouse with a gravel road leading up to it tunneled in trees and vines. The day I visited was all crystal-clear blue sky, a beautifully strange shine on and coming from everything, like a photograph that never gets taken but somehow still is a photograph. The house is white-sided, two-storied, and gray-roofed, with multiple front and back doors, lots of windows, and all around it is yard going off into land, some of it barren, some of it treed, grass just now sprouting into life.
Mike Goodlett’s Studio
I parked and got out of my car. There wasn’t any wind, just that bright chilly air. Even though I had never been here before, it was like a returning. Meeting Goodlett was like that as well.
He is tall and unassuming, very polite, and we shook hands after I called him on my phone, confused by which door I should knock on. We both were awkward at first, but almost instantly we got down to business. I was here to see his art, and this is where he makes it, so we went on in, an automatic transfer from reality to ghostliness. Nothing unnerving at all about it though. There wasn’t an abandoned-house fustiness, or even a feeling of loss; it was the smell and ambience of lives having been lived, dusty but clean, sunlight baking old wood and plaster into an atmosphere.
“I’ve always wanted to be left alone,” Goodlett said. It was sort of a joke, but I think he meant it as a solemn introduction too.
“I mean, I can’t find a group I want to be a part of. So being out here for me has made a lot of sense.”
The house is actually his grandmother and grandfather’s. They died 30 or so years ago, and since then Goodlett has used the rooms, and the vicinity, as his studio and headspace, creating batches of artworks made from the humblest of materials (concrete, plaster, thread, ball point pens, pencils, crayons, and spray-paint) but that exude a sophistication that belies the humility of their construction.
Goodlett escorted me through each room of the house, which is gutted mostly, emptied of hominess so it can supply this new form of utility. The wallpaper is shredded at points, but still covers many of the walls in a handsome form of pentimento, like a shirt half torn off. A small black wood-burning stove occupies the middle portion of the house, releasing that warmth and smell from my own backwoods childhood: wood-smoke almost like a cologne. In the kitchen a long table covered in stacks of books, drawing paper, pen and pencils, a coffee urn.
In each of the rooms Goodlett displayed works he wanted to show me. We started out, though, in a cold little side area where he was experimenting with spray paint and cut-out stencil-like netting. There were chunks of sculptures in here as well.
He walked around showing me what he was trying to figure out, and then told me, “I love changing materials, figuring out what they can do for me. Ideas, too. I move from one body of work into another that way. I know a body of work is finished really when I don’t have any more energy for it, and when it has a place to go. Energy and interest are kind of linked that way.”
This house itself was like his manifesto in a lot of ways: objects and ideas half-formed, trying to find each other. An exuberance flashed out of everything that’s not finished, that was looking for a way to be something else. At one point he showed me some homemade lace he’d constructed from thread, pastel cobwebs shaped into socks and little hats, creepy and droopy but also innocently tattered, as if made to be used by ghosts.
Goodlett walked us through a hall and into another first-floor room, which was crowded with more sculptural works, as well as pages and pages of his drawings spanning across the gray-painted wood slats. His three-dimensional objects have a tenderness you can’t name, concrete/plaster-formed mainly biomorphic and/or humanoid shapes that have evolved from the drawings. And conversely, the drawings often vacuum in the shapes of the sculptures, a sort of aesthetic circle-jerk that reminds you both of angelic visitations and, well, group sex.
Or, as Goodlett likes to call it, the intersection of “whimsy” and “pornography.” That’s one of his main themes, he told me, a way of trying to figure out the meaning of those two usually unintegrated penchants, often seen as polar opposites. Whimsy in visual art often can become a twee exercise in flirtation, pornography a way to shock or display street cred. The drawings, on paper and cardboard, created through an enmeshing of ink and pencil, needle and thread and paint, get at that merger without losing a sense of vigor and intimacy. They are shapes pulled from gestures and moans that have ballooned into myth. Through that clarification process, whimsy connects to porn, and abstract goes concrete.
In a drawing from 2011 titled “Dress Socks” (from a show called “Dress Socks and Other Diversions” at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky), Goodlett gets down to the whimsy of porn and the porn of whimsy through a delicate fetishization of everydayness. It’s an abstracted image of socks, given a veil of obsession, but a delicate ritual line informs every aspect of the drawing, like a Spirograph finding its way to language. The drawing’s beauty comes from Goodlett’s dedication to finding what makes something erotic when it is not, what makes something endearing when it’s just an object you slide your feet into. That investigation is done without words but through an adherence to what drawing can mean and do, a visual language that does not ever need a thesaurus.
Mike Goodlett, Dress Socks, 2011, ballpoint pen and thread on paper, 19 x 15.5 inches
We went upstairs.
Witnessing all of Goodlett’s rooms on display in his own personal museum up on the second floor, I kept thinking of Philip Guston’s jazzy delinquency and Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for curves – all of that aestheticism laid bare through a need to make something personal, to find relief. Throw a little Dichirico in there too, especially when taking in Goodlett’s objects: that stony sense of stillness matched with a yearning for songs of love.
In a piece I saw in one of the rooms, “Untitled” (from the 2015 exhibit “Human Behavior” at the John Goodlett Kohler Art Center), the connection to all of the above references comes through clearest. The shape is chandelier crossed with internal organs, all of that turned to stone and then clothed in gauzy spandex, like something a mummy-stripper might put on to take off. The muted color gives it dreaminess and pallor, but also highlights the stalagmite seriousness of its existence. The solidity of it is an elegant joke too, like a lead balloon, but also you feel enlightened by its sense of holiness somehow. It’s something you might worship, like an Egyptian artifact after the fact.
Michael Goodlett, Untitled
Goodlett mentioned Osiris in this room upstairs. The Egyptian-ness of his pursuit.
“It’s like inviting something supernatural to come and visit,” he said. “Like I’m making vessels to contain them.”
One of many Osiris’s many identities is “Lord of Silence.” He also goes by “Ruler of the Dead,” probably the first Egyptian deity to be associated with the mummy wrap, containing the dead in supernatural fabric to protect them as they made their way out of themselves.
Goodlett also explained to me that he works in cycles. Each cycle gets determined through exhaustion and external deadlines. He is constantly pursuing obsessions, materials, and subject matter with an eye toward perfecting what he can, reinventing what he invents, and repurposing what he gets rid of. (Right beyond the back porch is a beautiful pile of tossed-aside concrete and plaster pieces, a little encampment of future shapes, ideas, connections.)
In each room upstairs, drawings and sculptures waited for us politely, leaned up against the walls, ready for whatever. My mind went to J. F. Sebastian from the movie Bladerunner. He’s the genetic engineer left behind on Earth after most people have gone to colonize other planets, and because of dystopian loneliness and boredom he creates a generation of toys and androids to help him feel a little less alone.
I’ve always considered J. F. Sebastian a beautifully realized portrait of an artist without the normal baggage associated with “being an artist.” His connection to what he makes is sincere and real, and yet he also understands the purpose of his practice in a pragmatic, unadorned way. He needs to make things in order to have someone there at the end of the day to greet him, to break away from a world that may no longer be there for him. He creates an ecosystem out of bits and pieces, and in a movie filled with bleakness and doubt his existence feels the most hopeful and ironically the most grounded.
At one point, in one of the rooms upstairs, Goodlett brought in a bunch of drawings and laid them out on the floor, an overwhelming overspill. You could tell he doesn’t like to talk about his work until he starts talking about it. But once he got going, he seemed relieved to be able to say what he wanted to say.
“Solitude appeals to me,” he said. “But I also know I need to have a place for all of this stuff to go.”
He mentioned Philip March Jones as one of those external factors who’s assisted in understanding where he might fit in the world outside of here. Jones, funder of Institute 193 and currently its Curator-at-Large, visited Goodlett here ten or so years ago and would not take no for an answer after asking Goodlett to have a one-man show. Now dealers and curators often come to him.
All of my talk about J. F. Sebastian and solitude and sanctuary might make you consider Goodlett an “outsider artist.” I truly hope not. I don’t really think those old-school rules of arbitrary classifications apply here or basically anywhere now. Goodlett graduated from an art school in the 1980s (Cincinnati Art Academy), and he has had exhibits at a lot of high-end joints, write-ups in national media (BOMBmagazine and Artforum, just to name a couple). His outsiderness really is not something to focus on or to conjure. He is an artist living his life, using what he makes to keep his life and energy and interest going.
At the end of our visit Goodlett told me he had to go to the grocery store next. He explained how he’s one of the only family members left who can take care of his elderly mom and his aunts. He spends a lot of time making sure they are doing okay, and then he comes out here to pursue what he needs to pursue.
This farmhouse from his childhood is not Paradise Gardens, or a version of Watts Towers. It’s just where he has wound up. Somehow the journey and the destination have merged into both an artistic practice and a reason to live. Making art, whoever is making it, weaves the inner-world into the outer-world in a way that allows you to recover and replenish and continue. This rooms in Goodlett’s farmhouse are always evolving, changing, and he always struggles to figure out what fits where. What drawing can give birth to three dimensions, what object can be sucked into two. This space has given him permission to do the work he needs to do: making clothes for ghosts, making ghosts so he can make clothes for them.
“I guess you’d call everything I do part of an ongoing installation that never ends,” he told me.
Eventually, we went outside and did a little tour of the yard and surrounding area. Just beyond his front yard is a thicket of tall trees where he’s installed a couple of sculptures. One of them, sprouting from the mud like the hardened teats of a buried cow, is the perfect example of whimsy sliding into something a little less than charming and more guttural. It’s ridiculous but also makes perfect sense.
Goodlett’s pursuit of art is converging the need to be seen with the need to disappear.
Right before the end of our visit, Goodlett talked about his legacy in terms of where all this work might go. He told me he had a dream that he would have all of his works stored in an anonymous storage shed, and he would give the key to someone, right before he passes. He smiled.
“The only problem is – who do I give the key to?”
I nodded my head. We said goodbye.
The night before visiting Goodlett, I went to an Iron and Wine concert, so I was playing Iron and Wine songs all the way here and all the way back. When I arrived, and when I left, the song I was listening to was “Resurrection Fern,” from the 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog. The music is steel-guitar languish blurring into folk-rock lament. Sam Beam’s voice has a cadence and warmth to it, like a voice you hear only inside your head when you’re dozing off in church.
“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:
“In our days we will live
Like our ghosts will live
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows
And folding clothes.”
I won’t be able to hear that song now without thinking about the depth and amount of Goodlett’s work, the place where he makes it, and the life he’s lived in order to be able to do it. There’s a poetry to his pursuit you can’t write poems about; you can only acknowledge his lifelong project by knowing his work is a journey toward making more work, and more work, until all of it will need to a final place to exist – a pyramid, a museum, a storage unit, or a haunted house. It doesn’t matter. Wherever it all goes it will be called “home.”