Paradoxes of the Visible – Arden Reed, catalog essay
…To admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink of it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living. – Samuel Beckett
Recently, the novelist Don DeLillo diagnosed the cultural malaise that Raphaëlle Goethals addresses. Invoking the “drama of white-hot consumption and instant waste”, he observed that “the microwave, the VCR remote, the telephone redial button and other time collapsing devices may make us feel that our ordinary household technology reflects something that flows through the deep mind of the culture, an impatient craving for time itself to move faster.” Goethals responds by applying the brakes. The process of her work is slow- we sense her patient layering of wax and pigment- and the result is so seductive that we forget for a time our impatient cravings. Serendipity, for instance, moves at the pace of geological time. But our artist takes up the challenge of hot cultural consumption in an unexpected and nervy fashion. In two significant ways Goethals is a gambler. First, before commencing the works represented in this catalogue, she had produced a body of small-scale encaustics. They were beautiful—actually they were gorgeous, serene, and commercially successful. But after moving to a spacious new studio, Goethals began to rethink her work. She literally and figuratively pushed the envelope and began to produce paintings many times their earlier size. They expanded so far, in fact, as to attempt something like Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”. The result is arresting, with surfaces so vast that you enter, lose yourself, and succumb to a gravitational pull powerful enough to anchor your attention.
Goethals’ second great gamble was an attempt at making less out of more, and to arrive at stillness through action. The “more” signifies her working practice. The artist begins with birch panels, attracted to the wood’s clear white surface. Certain marks she inscribes directly onto the wood; other marks will come later. Over the birch she then spreads layers of encaustic—a mix of damar resin and beeswax, melted separately then blended together. (The resin hardens the medium, lending clarity and sheen.) She either mixes pigment into the wax or applies it directly by grinding the color onto the surface. Elsewhere Goethals incises lines into the encaustic, then applies pigment and rubs it off, so that the color remains within the lines. In this process of building up, a certain amount of information gets laid down on each layer and then obscured, as some areas remain transparent while other turn opaque.
But how can all this action—abrading, scraping, rubbing, scratching, effacing- repeated and multiplied both across the surface and at different levels- how can this overload of information lead to quiet and meditation? How can excess turn into emptiness? The answer has to do, I think, with an effect common to Goethals ‘various kinds of marking. They all serve to create space around them and so provide us places to wander, paradoxically creating penumbra of emptiness, and all the more effectively given her grand scale. While there is nothing representational in Goethals’ work, she thereby manages to suggest something of the open spaces of Northern New Mexico. Furthermore, she offers much to engage the eye. Her build up of information encourages us to linger, to register at our leisure likeness and difference, marks of presence and of absence as they merge and fade. Our investigation proceeds in both two dimensions as we establish relations across the plane and in three, as we retrace her processes, ferreting out what got recorded where, marks of presence and of absence as they emerge and fade. Our investigation proceeds in both two dimensions as we establish relations across the plane and in three, as we retrace her processes, ferreting out what got recorded where, or how different levels interlace, tracing genealogies of gesture. We become voyeurs of abstraction.
By occupying space so richly, Goethals occupies our attention. We observe how hours of thought and execution gets telescoped onto the tabula rasa, the clean birch surface. But to analyze and spell out in detail this dialectic of motion and stillness distorts our actual encounter with the works, for the painter’s gift is to make it look simple.
In addition to her turning more into less, three other paradoxes mark Goethals’ work.