by Jaimie Baron
There are few objects in contemporary life more familiar and intimate than bed sheets and T-shirts, those soft fabrics that rub against and leave impressions on our skin while absorbing the unique scents of our bodies. During the pandemic, these materials enveloped those of us who could stay home even more deeply as we slept more and opted for comfort over fashion.
Julia Goodman’s solo show, Falling apart to hold together/Holding together to fall apart, at Euqinom Gallery through January 8, consists of 16 mostly large-scale works that the Berkeley-based artist made from such fabrics over the past four years, the majority of them during the pandemic. Her materials and methods here are consistent with previous works that depend on a process of ripping fabric, in an echo of the Jewish mourning practice of kriah, and turning them into pulp to be reshaped in new forms. However, these particular works reflect a profoundly personal and embodied engagement with the experiences of family, new motherhood, and the domestic confinement that Goodman – along with so many others – confronted during the earlier stages of the ongoing pandemic.
Although deeply rooted in this historical moment, Goodman’s work can be located within a broader tradition of repurposing commonplace materials into tactile and sensuous artworks that depend on both our recognition of their mundane origins and their transposition into new texts and contexts. Like Alberto Burri’s post-World War II sacchi works, for which he collaged burlap sacks with other materials into low-relief disruptions of the traditional canvas, Goodman’s works trouble the division between everyday life and aesthetic contemplation in two-and three- dimensional space. At the same time, Goodman’s conceptual and visceral reuse of castoff fabrics is reminiscent of Nigel Poor’s reworkings of various found materials, including laundered books, while her investigation of negative space echoes certain painted works by Elizabeth Murray.
Since her graduate days at California College of the Arts, from which she received her MFA in 2009, Goodman has been making high- and low-relief paper sculptures by repurposing found materials. Her oeuvre is based on the European papermaking tradition, particularly the practice of transforming rags into pulp to be made into writing and drawing surfaces. Yet, for Goodman, the surface itself becomes an art object rather than a substrate. For most of the pieces on display, the artist took used T-shirts and bedsheets she found or acquired from friends or strangers, transformed them into pulp, and then combined and shaped them into flattened irregular circles, arcs, rectangles, meshes, and other less-nameable forms. Goodman adds no dyes, so the colors derive exclusively from the original fabrics, mixed in different ratios during the pulping process to produce brilliant or muted tones. Some of the works, including Brink and Akimbo, were created outdoors; the wet fabric, when pressed against a brick wall or cracked concrete walkway, retained the impression of these surfaces as well as residues of brick dust and soil.
Most of the pieces are based on and suggest new forms for understanding our most intimate relationships, many of which changed – whether they intensified, deepened, ended, began, darkened, or drifted – during the pandemic. Two (Promise) consists of two large hanging rectangles made of pulped fabric bearing the impression of bricks and traces of dust and dirt. One mottled blue-and-black form was measured to the artist’s height, the other to her partner’s. The complex textures of each panel, from which inclusions of whole fabrics emerge from the pulped foundation, suggests the messy intricacy of any human identity. Meanwhile, the placement of the two panels – a few inches apart in-depth but overlapping on the horizontal axis – suggests the variable proximity and distance that emerges between two people over the course of a life together. Air currents generated as visitors walk by bring the panels close enough to almost touch. This work, crafted to the size of two particular individuals, reflects the universal struggle between the desires to individuate oneself and to merge with another, which the pandemic brought to the fore for so many people, especially those confined with loved ones.
Other pieces, such as Intertwine, Holding, Four (Irving), One (Unending), and Three (Generations), further explore the meaning of overlapping shapes that both retain their integrity and begin – through Goodman’s resonant compositions – to (dis)integrate into one another. When each colored section of pulped fabric is read as a human life, these works become tactile metaphors for the ways – physical and emotional – in which we reach for one another, our lives and bodies becoming intertwined. They also remind us how this reaching, like so much else, has become an act laden with new danger during the pandemic.
Beyond reconfiguring our relationships, the past two years have fundamentally shifted our sense of time. Goodman’s freestanding sculpture An Unimaginable Unit of Time serves as a remarkable condensation of the temporal experience of the pandemic, an experience both intensely personal and shared – despite differences – by a global collective. A square armature with posts at each corner becomes the body of a continuing construction marking the time of the pandemic. Wrapped around this revolving frame are discarded bedsheets, their colors and patterns still clearly visible, which have been torn into strips – a form closely associated with the idea of escape. For every day since March 17, 2020, Goodman has
wrapped one more strip of fabric around the frame, building from the base up. Every six feet, she has placed a white grip – a pulped paper cast of the negative space of the artist’s gripping fingers, each one a preserved gesture that channels the confusion and fear many of us experienced during lockdown (and since) into a tangible shape. The result is reminiscent of layers of strata, in the form of bedclothes on which someone once slept, now studded by knots and a grip for every six feet of social distance. And although growing vertically rather than concentrically, the piece also evokes the rings of a tree, in that each temporal cycle creates a new line built upon the last. Long before humans produced sundials and smartwatches (both recent inventions), trees and rocks traced time in their patterns, and Goodman’s sculpture echoes these natural marks. Simultaneously, the piece also references the nautical practice of charting speed by measuring distance over time. Literalizing the maritime notion of the knot (which derives from the nautical mile), the sculpture suggests an alternative method of measuring time when the meaning of minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so on have lost their monopoly on organizing our reality. In all of these ways, An Unimaginable Unit of Time offers us a unit of measurement appropriate to the timeless, no-time, all-the-time temporality of the pandemic.
Liquified natural fibers, even those from unrelated sources, will bond together as they dry. Likewise, water can release these bonds and allow the fibers to be reshaped time and time again. Jacques Rancière has written, “This is what emancipation is about: changing one’s manner of inhabiting time.”1 In her practice, Goodman uses papermaking to demonstrate the malleability of both our material culture and our inhabitation of time. Falling apart may sometimes be a move toward new forms, toward new freedoms, especially when we do it together.
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Julia Goodman: “Falling apart to hold together/Holding together to fall apart” @ Euqinom Gallery through January 8, 2021.
1. Jacques Rancière, “Anachronism and the Conflict of Times,” 122.
About the author:
Jaimie Baron is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.