If you have driven along the Gore Hill Freeway you have already experienced the art of Richard Goodwin. The abstract patterns incised on the concrete, sound-baffling walls are taken from designs by architect, Walter Burley Griffin; the transcriptions of Aboriginal rock carvings pay homage to the area’s first inhabitants. It’s a typical Goodwin project: scrupulous in its historical references, sharply designed and executed. Although it is basically a way of adding visual interest to a concrete surface, there is an aspiration towards higher things.
For over 30 years Goodwin has pursued a career pitched midway between art and architecture, leaving his mark on access roads and bridges all over Sydney. If you see a bridge across a highway covered in an anarchic mesh of stainless steel rods, you can be sure it’s one of Goodwin’s creations.
Then there are the public sculptures such as Mobius Sea (1986), initially situated in front of the Conservatorium, then relocated to a spot near the Art Gallery of NSW; the Corvette Memorial at Garden Island (1995); or the Exoskeleton Tower Reach (2000) in the foyer of the Galleries Victoria, George St. It’s hard to live in this part of the world and not come into contact with Goodwin’s work. He has even designed a series of eco-friendly public toilets for the RTA.
The exhibition Refiguring Dystopia: Richard Goodwin 1991-2012 was put together by independent curator, Gavin Wilson, for the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery at the end of last year. It has now made its way to the new College of Fine Art Galleries, on the corner of Oxford Street and Greens Road in Paddington.
It’s ironic that a show that asks us to think hard about architecture and urban space is being displayed in a gallery with such distressingly low ceilings. A key concept in Goodwin’s work is “porosity” – by which he refers to the amount of flow-through between inside and outside, chiefly between a building and the street. The main exhibition area at COFA has generous floor space but a lack of ‘porosity’. It is cramped and claustrophobic – traits that have a negative impact on the way we view art.
With Goodwin’s work I often feel I need all the help I can get. It has become a running joke between us that I can never muster much enthusiasm for his multifarious activities, and I’m not on the verge of a major conversion. One can have a lot of respect for an artist, and even like him as a person, without warming to the art.
I’d like to think this isn’t merely a question of taste. It’s an aesthetic dilemma, because so many of Goodwin’s sculptures and sculptural projects wilfully defy conventional standards of beauty. He is a charming aesthetic terrorist who uses complexity of form as way of questioning the functional/dysfunctional nature of everyday architecture, and the assumptions we make about urban space. Yet his massing of lines and planes can feel like failed decoration, or perhaps anti-decoration.
Goodwin produces sculpture and architecture in which the pentimenti of a design are preserved in a concrete incarnation. Many of his works give the impression of being frozen in the midst of a collapse or an explosion. This is literally the case with Poroplastic 2 – black bridge bridle (2008), one of a series of pieces based on an exploding motorbike. The mechanics of the blast have been analysed and modeled on a computer, allowing Goodwin to suspend the components on metal rods, like a three-dimensional freeze frame.
As usual with Goodwin, this is a pretty nifty idea constructed to the highest standards, that manages to have very little presence. It’s an interesting object in the way a model of the atom is interesting. The work would be more at home in a museum of science and technology than in any art gallery. The same could be said about Co-isolated slave (2010) – a brand new motorbike upended in the cargo tray of an old Shanghainese tricycle – which was awarded the Wynne Prize as a “figure sculpture” in 2011. The reference is to Michelangelo’s marble sculpture, The Dying Slave (1513-16), but there also seems to be a ‘hare and tortoise’ parable about old technology being more durable than the newer varieties.
The problem is that Co-isolated slave remains a wry Duchampian gesture that unites two readymade objects and calls the result a ‘sculpture’. It’s an idea piece with no trace of the transforming influence of the artist’s hand.
There is more genuine feeling in The Inhabitant (1995), Goodwin’s homage to Joseph Cindric, a well known eccentric who roamed the streets of Sydney’s CBD pushing a heavy cart. Cindric was like a character from an absurdist play, condemned by unknown forces to keep on with this lonely routine, day after day. When he died, Goodwin – who had never spoken with him – was almost the only person at his funeral.
When Goodwin rolls up his sleeves and gets his mitts dirty he creates vast charcoal drawings such as Formula for Cold Fusion (1992), which combines scribbled mathematical equations with tight little squares that depict fragments of industrial machinery. This is reminiscent of works by Pop artists such as James Rosenquist, but without the riotous colour. Despite its sweeps and smudges the picture is as static as a diagram. The small drawings resemble a disjointed montage of film stills, while the mathematical equations are used as the visual equivalent of ‘white noise’.
Goodwin, who refers to mathematics as “Western Dreaming”, uses formulae to create nonsense rather than sense – a fantastic over-elaboration of meaning that renders these symbols as opaque (to most of us) as Egyptian hieroglyphics. In Moth (2005) he has covered a streamlined wooden boat frame with dense calculations.
The maths turn up one final time in a new piece, The Drone Stripped Bare of All its Brides (2013), a panoramic drawing accompanied by a model of one of those notorious unmanned aircraft used by the United States in the Middle East.
As an architect Goodwin has an acute appreciation of the value of mathematics, but he uses formulae in rather a contemptuous manner. He seems to be denouncing those who believe in mathematics as a key to universal knowledge when it cannot touch on the deepest aspects of what it is to be human.
This interrogation of the so-called human condition lies at the heart of Goodwin’s experiments. He is alert to all the ways we have made our urban spaces less liveable, and seeks to reverse the trend. His methods are so diverse they might even be seen as contradictory. On one hand he is a dedicated theorist who enjoys coining new terms, analysing systems and posing grand hypotheses. On the other he acts like a mystic, devising ritualistic performance pieces to be enacted in public spaces or the privacy of the studio.
In this, Goodwin’s chief inspiration is the famous German artist, Joseph Beuys, who played the role of a latter-day shaman striving to heal a spiritually blighted world. Like Beuys, Goodwin is not worried if he appears a little ridiculous, as he does in a recent video in which he carries a model drone through the streets of Mumbai, intent on consigning it to a Hindu funeral pyre.
The ultimate impression one takes away from this busy, baffling show, is of an artist who is almost too clever, too ambitious and prolific for his own good. Goodwin is in love with ideas but distrustful of reason. He has the passionate views of a political activist, but has learnt to work within the parameters set by public authorities and bureaucracies when it comes to major urban design projects. He is embedded within the system while continually probing its shortcomings.
If one turns from this survey and looks at the Sol LeWitt exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW we see an artist devoted to ideas who was still capable of producing works of elegance and simplicity. Goodwin takes an antithetical stance. His works are complex, multi-layered, politically charged and interventionist, but they engage with the intellect rather than the senses.
Goodwin seeks to stimulate thought and challenge our preconceptions, but he ignores that vital first step – to lure and capture the viewer’s eye. Our first appreciation of a work of art is almost always intuitive. We are drawn spontaneously to a piece and can only rationalise the attraction afterwards. In Quixotic fashion Goodwin tries to reverse the process. Start with the maths, the exoskeleton or the historical reference, and arrive miraculously at visual pleasure.
Refiguring Dystopia: Richard Goodwin 1991 – 2012
COFA Galleries UNSW, until 29 March.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 8 March, 2014