June 12, 2009
Goldberg captures essences
A common assumption about painters called photorealists, and this includes Ann Goldberg, is that they are obsessed with technique and getting paint to minutely reproduce visual reality. But, like most common assumptions, this one is not necessarily true.
Another name for "common assumption" is prejudice – the mistake of judging people and things by what they look like. In visual art, prejudice is the mistake that comes from not judging things by what they look like. That's what happens with Goldberg and her paintings.
Goldberg isn't a photorealist. When you really look at her paintings, she is only a tenuous realist.
The impulse to paint in a deceptively realistic manner – today, we say, a photorealist manner – predates the modern camera by millennia. From the Roman naturalist and writer, Pliny the Elder, we receive the story of the famous fifth century BCE contest between the painters Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus to determine which of the two was the better artist. When time came to reveal their work, Zeuxis confidently drew aside the veil and showed his painting first – a picture of grapes that appeared so luscious and true that birds flew down from the trees to peck at them. Zeuxis confidently asked Parrhasius to pull aside the curtain from his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal that the curtain itself was the painting. Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat, and is rumored to have said, "I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis."
Admittedly, Goldberg paints from photographs, but she is neither producing a detailed representation of a photograph, nor representing familiar things as they actually are. Why not then paint directly from the object? Goldberg won't for many reasons. There's the difficulty of controlling the conditions of light for the time necessary for her to paint a picture. Through photography, she can quickly and spontaneously compose. She's attracted to the cropping, flatness and shallowness of focus of photographs, which she uses compositionally. Even though painters have been using photography since its discovery, it still lends a sense of modernity.
Goldberg's paintings aren't so much about how much they look like the reality from which they're painted, but how they differ from it. More proper is to simply call her a still-life painter. The late art historian Meyer Schapiro said that the objects of still-life paintings are "often associated with a style that explores patiently and minutely the appearance of nearby things – their textures, lights, reflections and shadows." The objects of Goldberg's paintings are the everyday, but their subjects are the abiding values of light on objects, and of the capture and transformation of beauty. What is particularly germane to seeing what Goldberg does is recognizing what Schapiro describes as the "subtle interplay of perception and artifice in representation." In other words, how and what we see and the tricks we use to capture it, or representation and abstraction. Goldberg's paintings don't give the illusion of reality, it's the illusion of precision. "White Tea Set" is convincing in the painting of its sleek, white porcelain vessels: firm, modern, architectural. Yet in the cup the swirling tea and cream are like sky or water. Next door, in the bowl, the short choppy strokes of the sugar are like drapery or landscape. A fluid abstraction in a cup. A Cezanne in a sugar bowl. Such a gulf separates these distinct ways of handling paint yet there they are side by side.
There is a factualness to her paintings that is continuously slipping away. She alternates between concentrating on representation and abstraction. Goldberg makes this oscillation a conscious part of her painting, so that we can never relax in our looking at them. In "Mussels With Lemon," most of the shells are painted with a similar degree of verisimilitude. They have a continuity of surface and a convincing concavity and convexity. Up close, it's the marks that are important. "I like my work to take on the painterly significance of an expressionistic stroke as exemplified by De Kooning, but at the same time retain realistic and photographic qualities at a distance," she explained.
Goldberg paints as she does, not from an obsession with technique, but because this is who she is. A former mathematician and architect, ordering the world and figuring out its equations, sums and balances comes naturally to Goldberg. But just as in the real world, Goldberg's painted world doesn't resolve itself into elegant equations. There are uncertainties and anomalies and paradoxes. We see them in "Olives in Glass Bowl," where colors and shapes dissociate themselves from the objects they are supposed to describe and pull themselves out of the spatial relationships they are meant to define. In front of our eyes, Goldberg's world – and therefore our world too – pulls itself apart and is redefined not in terms of objects and spatial relationships, but in terms of Goldberg's most important value – beauty.
"I see beauty and light as promise – a truth or hope in the darkness," said Goldberg. In Goldberg's continuum from beauty and light through promise to truth and hope, her paintings are like little shards of light, little shards of goodness with which the world can be made whole again. It was as if they were a part of a hidden combination, that once the objects were arranged just so our troubled, gray world would unlock and we'd be flooded with light. One can imagine this ecstatic vision, much like the ecstasy of the Chassidim. If we believe Luria, our world will be redeemed one small piece at a time. And for Goldberg, one painting at a time.
Goldberg's Still Life exhibition opened at Gallery Jones, 1725 West 3rd Ave., on June 11.
Dion Kliner is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.