by Jaimie Baron
When walking through Vessels, an exhibition of new works by Julia Goodman and Klea McKenna, my mind filled with thoughts of gathering war, I had been wondering for a while what a politics based around the feminine rather than the masculine might look like. On the news, we see the logical outcome of the latter: a society based on competition and glorified violence, riven by endless territorial disputes, tribal hatred, civilian suffering and death, and the struggle for power. Here, I saw evidence of insight, of artists who channel feminine energies to remind us – amidst uncertainties, anxieties and absurdities – of the beauty of everyday human existence.
Since her last exhibition at Euqinom Gallery in 2021, Goodman’s work has shifted slightly, her vocabulary altered and expanded by the incorporation of watercolor into hanging semi-sculptural pieces made from pulped bedsheets and T-shirts transformed into paper. Where she previously used only colors that were part of the fabric, she now paints on textured, hand-formed paper, allowing her to produce a more varied color palette and a new layer of detail.
Two shapes dominate this group of works. The first is an elliptical downward orbit, a teardrop within a teardrop, skewed upward like an oyster shell. This form, reminiscent of sonar circles and water ripples – at once centripetal and centrifugal – both calls us in and flings us outward. The small circle at the heart of each teardrop can be read as a pearl (a tiny grain of sand transformed into a precious stone) or the sun, a celestial body whose dimensions cannot be fathomed by the human mind.
Goodman describes her work in terms of relationships, particularly with her husband and small son. In her eyes, the echoing ellipses reflect on parents’ changing relationships with their growing children, whose orbits enlarge as they grow and move farther away from home. The form also echoes an earlier work that the artist showed at the Berkeley Art Center (also in 2021) called Certain is nothing now, a piece comprised of many concentric hanging circles that form a horizontal funnel of sorts, which Goodman made after her father died. In Farther and Farther (III), the funnel appears compressed into a two-dimensional painting, yet it nonetheless beckons our gaze inward and upward. Toward the bottom of the piece, pulped paper rolls towards us like billowing clouds, the unfinished edges refusing wholeness and symmetry in favor of something more amorphous and messy.
This overspilling of edges also appears in three other pieces: There are new mountains, Returns and Anchor (I), in which the concentric teardrops are sculptural, imprinted in the form of the paper itself. Inclusions of unpulped, torn fabric further interrupt any wholly transcendent reading, pointing back to the textures of daily life, its mundane boredom and beauty. In Glimmer (I), the ellipses again seem to lead somewhere luminous, but against the darkness of deep reds, purples and blues, the glowing circle feels hopeful, a promise of light shining through darkness.
A different form emerges in a second set of paintings on hand-formed paper. It, too, evokes celestial orbits, but in these, oval shapes alternate in orientation, replacing concentricity with a more layered and varied ripple, as seen in Night After Night (I), which evokes the light of a rosy dusk, and Night After Night (III), readable as halos of moonlight on a misty night. These rotating ellipses take on a different role in Chorus II, which Goodman says reflects how her child’s circle of acquaintances has grown into a chorus as he has moved out into the world beyond the home. The explosion of primary and secondary hues also connotes childhood and the slightly chaotic mix of color from the paint and fabric reflects a playful obliviousness to established order.
In contrast to Goodman’s work, which eschews hard edges even when deploying straight lines, McKenna’s works are rectangular and framed behind glass. The shapes vary between hard mechanical edges and softer bodily forms, breasts in particular. Indeed, the breast is the fundamental shape in most of her works here. Untitled #1, for instance, gives the impression of a split mechanical female body. The piece’s symmetry implies either a bisected specimen or a Rorschach test, but the combination of elements also points to the complex relation between mechanical and human bodies. We have understood the human body as a machine for several centuries and have often treated it as such. On one hand, this has helped develop life-saving medical care. Conversely, we sometimes treat human beings more like a collection of body parts rather than full subjectivities. Women’s bodies, in particular, have been subject to this mechanizing gaze, a point foregrounded in this body of work. Untitled #4 and Untitled #5 further develop the metaphor of the woman’s body as a machine to be dissected and reassembled. Echoing engineering blueprints, these works, culled from McKenna’s Life Hack series, rearrange body parts to form something more efficient, a violent repurposing.
Untitled (Nasturtium) and Untitled (Blue) deploy a similar vertical symmetry along with breast imagery but are combined with photograms and fabric dye to produce mixed-media hieroglyphs. In contrast, Untitled (Teal Vase) and Untitled (cascade), both from the artist’s Rainbow Bruise series, employ the same methods without symmetry; but they feel like a hodgepodge of mediums, textures and forms, like experiments for something to come.
Feminine attributes are often dismissed as weakness, but Goodman and McKenna’s works insist on their quiet power. Each engages deeply with the feminine aspect of human identity in its tendency toward softness and care. Where Goodman’s work embodies this sensibility through texture and symbolic form, McKenna reveals it in its absence or abstraction. Women are vessels, not only for new human life but also for humanity itself: for care, knowledge and wisdom: for all those things for which the world is starving, even as it gorges on war.
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Julia Goodman and Klea McKenna: “Vessel” @ Euqinom Gallery through October 28, 2023.
About the author: Dr. Jaimie Baron is a lecturer in the department of film and media 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.