US artist Brett Goodroad was personally invited by his friend, Festival director David Shrigley, to showcase a new body of work at the Phoenix Gallery. His response is ‘Toe Buoy’, a sequence of 44 small scale monochrome works on paper, executed in Japanese sumi ink.
In the accompanying artist’s statement, Goodroad explains that the starting point for the work is a series of poems he wrote about two fictional characters, Elm and Aleen. “The question: Is Aleen about revery?” he asks, “Or of fish and mammals?” We enter the display sincerely hoping that the artwork will be better than this insultingly poor wall label.
A photocopied sheet informs us that the works are hung out of sequence – and that to view them properly we should advance into the gallery, then double back on ourselves and complete the circuit in anti-clockwise fashion. Confusing us further, the pictures have numbers which bear no relation to this sequence.
Pressing on, and sticking to the suggested route, we encounter a suite of semi-abstract works. There is no overt narrative here, but there is, in very broad terms, a progression to this sequence. The first image hangs separately and depicts a figure holding a pen or brush – a self portrait perhaps of the artist about to embark on this journey on paper. The initial images contain clear suggestions of landscapes, mountains and even some sensitively rendered trees; we are outdoors now, in foggy daylight. Moving through the room, the sequence grows darker as we experience the claustrophobic sensation of being inside a more threatening, cave-like space.
The final work is, like the first, hung separately – and is the only piece to depict a completely freestanding figure on white paper, a character who perhaps has escaped this dark entombment. This piece is hung near one of the Phoenix Gallery’s tall windows as sunshine floods in, as if to emphasise this concluding sense of optimism and freedom.
Sumi ink, an interesting choice of medium, was traditionally used in landscape paintings, and Japanese masters like Sesshu used it very sparingly to express open space and misty, rainy effects. Many of the overall effects in these traditional pictures were achieved via their blank unpainted areas. Goodroad, originally a native of Montana, is also a truck driver who regularly drives between Texas and California, yet his paintings do not feel like evocations of the open road, nor of the freedom and space inherent in the great American landscape. Granted, they are hamstrung by their small scale, but they also feel rather heavily worked and oppressively enclosed. Seen from a distance, they coalesce into grey slabs with, it must be said, little graphic impact or compositional heft.
It’s an uneven display in terms of quality. Some of the paintings here are, on closer inspection, quite subtle with sensitive mark making and intriguing hints at subject matter, eluding direct interpretation. In places the ink appears to have been scratched back to give an intriguing stippled effect which almost mimics an aquatint. When the paintings are good, they point towards a poetic and troubled beauty – but sadly this is the exception more than the rule. For the most part they are a confused mess, and the exhibition as a whole seems designed in every regard to mystify, alienate and exclude its audience.
Phoenix Gallery, 10-14 Waterloo Place
Runs til May 27th, 11-5. (Closed Monday and Tuesday)