English Painting(2) is an old art book, published in Florence in 1930, exploring the 16th and 17th century English portraiture. It was selected by Gary Goldstein as a surface, a ground - at once passive and stimulating - for practicing diary-like, confessional drawing that entrenches itself amidst the leaves of the book, spinning a visual plot abundant with detail and characters, a plot typified - like Baudelairean poetry - by an ambivalent blend of sin and violence, seduction and sweetness, elegant style and gloominess.
For Goldstein, one of the ways to survive as an Israeli artist, who has been living here since 1977, is to “plunge” into old books, usually English. At times French or German, and live his life therein. Ostensibly detached from the immediate cultural continuum, Goldstein reaches his ultimate fecundity as an artist when conducting a dialogue with strata of “visual archeology”, both local and universal, such as that extensively found in second-hand books.
The book as a cultural, visual and rhythmic universe, provides a richly detailed arena for Goldstein's Sisyphean-obsessive acts: concealment, obliteration, hatching, filling in, and conjuring up countless images derived from a rich associative repertoire that draws upon both his American roots and the Israeli reality.
Goldstein's opting for the tactics of a mole that digs into a given space, homing therein, and his favoring of the “parasitical” state to the classical condition of confrontation with a blank void, is not only a type of escapism, but also the expression of a more ironic insight regarding art's redemptive power: instead of the dramatic space of the studio, with an easel situated at its center, and the artist in front of it, waving his brushes in an act of liberation and redemption, Goldstein chose the intimacy of the domestic dining table turned work table, limited his color gamut to three colors: red, black and white (at least in this book), and restricted the work's scope to the given number and format of pages in the book. The brushes were replaced with ordinary pens, and the paper, or white canvas, was substituted for a primary layer of printed culture. Thus, Goldstein's starting point is already located in one of the turns along the winding path; it is already built-into a space replete with text and images, like the one unfolding before him in this book.
Even in its final form, the manipulated book follows the organizing principle of an art book: the first part, consisting mainly of text and illustrative reproductions, and the second part, larger in scope, comprised of a sequence of full-page reproductions. Goldstein responds to each part with a different set of actions: the textual part involves a continual, decisive act of deleting lines. This obsessive process, which suppresses the initial reading impulse, generates a square, black mass delineated by a red contour: it is a “blind spot”, a black hole in the middle of the page, precisely where the text which was supposed to “shed light” on the entire book was set.
A paradoxical position is reveled here: by digging into the depths of culture, a violent strategy takes shape of effacing its verbal parts and inserting them into the realms of darkness, along the same sequence as the visual array. Evolving alongside the blackened mass of text is a rich and diversified marginal life that undermines the written culture. From the corners and margins of the page emerge morbid-Baudelairean scenes of seduction, that verge on the pornographic and criminal: amputated and cut off organs, a female pelvis encased in a corset and garters, long female legs in sexy seamed stockings, dripping hands, pointed breasts within a push-up bra, grotesque asks of black faces, the portrait of a gangster, anatomical heart fastened with a wire, oozing drops, splattered drops, empty speech bubbles, animal skulls, knives and swords…
This theatrical world, teeming with objects, masks, body parts and traces of violent scenes, is akin in spirit to perceptions of the “Theatre of Cruelty”, as formulated in the 1930s by French playwright, actor and theorist Antonin Artaud, Artaud was committed to the concept of cruelty, not as an actual endorsement of sadistic acts, but rather as a means of arousal and intensification of the uncontrolled life situation, with all the various instincts and drives it involves. “A focused, violent plot”, he maintained, “is tantamount to lyrical poetry: it invokes supernatural images, imagist blood, and blood streams of images in the minds of both poet and viewer.”(3) The disapproving critique thrust at him from every direction for the radical manifesto he published, forced Artaud to re-explain his intentions time and again: “I use the word cruelty” he wrote to a friend in 1932, “in the sense of hungering after life, cosmic strictness, relentless necessity, in the Gnostic sense of a living vortex engulfing darkness, in the sense of the inescapable necessary pain without which life could not continue”(4).
In the course of his visual stream of consciousness, Goldstein too invokes the dark depths of consciousness that engulf the vortex of life, to borrow Artaud's language, alluding to “that pain” and “that desire”, the greatest one of all. However, unlike Artaud's dramatic expressivity, Goldstein stylizes these cruel scenes into a well-defined and controlled linear drawing, ? la comic strips, peppering the perverse with a smack of journalistic alienation. The second part of the book unfolds into a series of carpet-pages containing large “portraits” drawn from the glamorous reservoirs of Hollywood cinema, American advertising, magazine-style fashion, comics, pornography and crime. This part of the book is airier, waiving multiplicity and division, thus it is exceptional within Goldstein's oeuvre*. At times, only a torso, rarely a full body, Goldstein's portraits are “embroidered” in a fragmentary line (like a sewing machine stitched seam) running obsessively and winding within their bodies and faces. In an endless route, this hatched line covers every millimeter of the figures' bare skin and clothes, towing along the eye on an endless journey of edgy, alert topographical observation.
From the point of view of an American who grew up in Connecticut, New England, with its European characteristics, Goldstein re-visits an English territory, re-confronting the ghosts of high European bourgeoisie. Moreover, Goldstein, an American-Jew, the son of Eastern European parents who emigrated to the U.S.A. after the Holocaust, delves into the Victorian world of English aristocracy before it had become acquainted with either Freudian psychologism or fascist racism. The Jewish neurosis of the second half of the 20th century, at the height of its sensitivity, is confronted here with the well-repressed Christian-Protestant neurosis, still dominant under the heavy bourgeois cloak.
A closer look reveals many points of similarity between the two groups of portraits ostensibly so far-removed from one another: the phenomenal style of the corset-like clothes, the hairdos, the slight distortion of the facial structure, the seemingly-indifferent, seemingly gloomy gaze, the certain stiffness of the body, the men's coquettish dandyism, the women's elegance, the desperate attempt to look glamorous… Juxtaposed with Goldstein's “comics-like” gallery of figures that embraces the distorted as well as the aberrant, all these elements sharpen the perversity inherent in the Victorian world, lending the English figures a hue which is somewhat bizarre, albeit homogenized and well-disciplined.
Vis-?-vis the proper silence of the noble English figures, standing festive, motionless, mummified in their elegant attires, Goldstein offers his figures the option of speech in the form of empty comics bubbles. However, instead of flowing from the speaking mouth, these bubbles emerge from mute organs: a speech bubble next to a shoulder, an ankle, or a nipple… The body, hence, replaces the speaking mouth, and physicality replaces the text, just as Artaud strove to substitute the written, dialogical language with another language - “that interacts with the necessities of positions, signs, gestures and objects.”(5) This interchange, between text and body, highlights the tension created by Goldstein between form and content: the stylized form governs the distorted content, just as the order represses the chaotic, just as the contour holds the drop (even if it is a drop of blood, sweat or semen), just as the line, at least in Goldstein's case, does away with the stain. Goldstein has cast suspicion on the historical notion of English Painting, rendering it bitter and Saturnian, wild and wanton, to quote Baudelaire, and like him, he seeks the viewer's love, despite everything.
English Painting - An Altered Book by Gary Goldstein, Introduction by Tali Tamir, D.K. GraubArt Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002 The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition “English Painting” held at the Kibbutz Gallery, Tel-Aviv, in November 2002.
* Indirectly, Goldstein's decision to focus on a single figure was influenced by his overwhelming encounter with Artuad's large portraits that he first saw during a visit to Paris in 1999.
(1) Charles Baudelaire, “Epigraph for a Condemned Book”, in: The Flowers of Evil (1868), trans. James McGowan (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.331.
(2) C.H. Collins Baker & W.G. Constable, English Painting of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Pantheon & Casa Editrice, Firenze Pegasus Press, Italy, 1930.
(3) Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double (free translation).
(4) Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, trans. Victor Corti, London & New York: Calder, 1970, p.80.
(5) Antonin Artaud, “Letters on Language” (free translation).