The Art of Collage, Revitalized

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The New York Sun

Until recently, I thought it virtually impossible for an artist to make collages that do not feel derivative. Picasso, Braque, Schwitters, Arp, and Joseph Cornell have so thoroughly and miraculously explored the medium that for an artist to glue any found object to a surface is to work ostensibly within their shadow. But the sculptor Barbara Goodstein, whose eighth one-woman show at Bowery Gallery is currently on view, has proved that it is still possible to revitalize the tradition.

A completely original and lyric poet, Ms. Goodstein has been working since 1983 with white plaster on rectangular wood panels painted black, a unique medium in which, through sculptural drawing, she is reinventing the tradition of landscape relief. Recently, she has also been working on other colored grounds, including a terra-cotta red, a yellow-ocher, and a deep, emerald green – a color that is prominent in her current show.

Ms. Goodstein’s plaster reliefs, as blunt as chalk drawings on a blackboard, are of figures, landscapes, cityscapes, farms, churches, and synagogues. They appear childlike and sketchy, as if they were quick studies. But in time it becomes clear that she is working and reworking the plaster as well as the ground color, which she varies from dry to silken, always moving toward getting at the essence of a thing.

Applied in various thicknesses – from delicate, transparent, and spider-web-thin to rough, planar, and heavy – the white plaster exerts a graceful, rubbery magic. Almost impossibly, the reliefs convey a landscape’s naturalistic atmosphere within a taut, pared-down, skeletal architecture of lines. Drawing and carving with, as well as painting the ground color back over, the plaster, Ms. Goodstein evokes sky, haze, stone, dust kicked up from a roadway, the movement of wind through bushes and trees, and the movement of light across stained glass.

Her long horizontal landscapes of low, languorous mountain ranges are reminiscent of the flows of rivers, the coolness of lakes, and the curving eroticism of Ingres odalisques. In “The Mountains From Ford Hill” (2006), she draws over the green ground with faint lines of red, orange, and purple, adding just enough color to create a light-filled haze. In plaster, and in a very different hand from the one that painted the mountains, she creates a magnificent, fluffy cloud.

Ms. Goodstein achieves the same level of freshness, daring, and success (not to mention wry humor) in the best of her recent collages, in which, like a shaman, she transforms the detritus of the studio and of the street with mysterious deftness. In the best work in her current show, she is an inventive master draftsman. She creates bouquets of flowers in glass vases out of plaster and bits of broken china. The flowers shudder like the feathers of birds in a cage, or as if they had just been shaken in their vases.

Some of her collages are richer than others, but in all of them her seeming insouciance is tempered with compositional exactness and specificity. Tiny chips of dried paint, twigs, wood, broken glass, an aspirin, a button, a piece of string – all convey multiple readings that move them out of mundane origins and into a realm where they become alive. They read as enigmatic signs, or gleam like precious jewels. Part of the wonder of Ms. Goodstein’s collages is that through them, like a Byzantine artist creating mosaics, she has the power to alter the broken bits of our ordinary world into something otherworldly.

Until May 20 (530 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 646-230-6655).

The New York Sun

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