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Abstract Art by Artist Raphaëlle Goethals


Lumens, 1999 (cont'd)


​Accident/design. At first glance Goethals compositions appear to be free of hierarchies or organizing principles. He remarks do not look as if deposited by nature or by chance. The surfaces are what linguists would call paratactic rather than hypotactic. As a result, Goethals’ paintings are radically democratic, inviting the eye to travel where it will. Using the edges to create a sense that her spaces are not contained but fields that might expand indefinitely reinforces this impression. Amidst this seeming disorganization, however, the patient eye uncovers another sort of mark entirely, a regular pattern that answers the mobility and flux. It turns out that that old staple of modernism, the grid, underlies Goethals’ compositions, whether implicitly or explicitly. While the size of the dots varies and tends to vanish and reappear, the grid provides a skeleton on which the artist embodies her intuition. Which is perhaps the point: what finally composes these pieces is an intuitive sense of rightness, the accident morphing into the trouvaille.


Body/Text. As various senses are involved in composing Goethals’ paintings, so their appeal extends beyond the visual. (“We receive Beauty with our entire body”, she says.)


Goethals medium is strongly sensual, invoking particularly the sense of touch: the smooth, waxy, tactile surfaces call out “touch me”. And then, the material substance harmonizes with the subject matter, so that the organic signifier (beeswax) joins the signified organic. By contrast, her material already refers to Nature. Moreover, the way Goethals builds up layers of encaustic resembles the way skin grows. At the same time, her surfaces appear to have aged like skin, showing scars and abrasions inscribed over the years. Underneath the surface we sometimes perceive faint blue lines that recall human veins and suggest an uncomfortable intimacy with another body.


But juxtaposed to the flesh is the word. In these paintings, the organic encounters the artificial, for intermixed with bodily elements you discover glyphs or other primitives forms of writing reminiscent of Arabic characters, Chines or Greek. Elsewhere Goethals inscribes Brice Marden—like loops, or doodles and swirls that resemble Formica patters. In reds or blacks or browns, these glyphs can float and swirl to the surface to look sharp, or recede and go fuzzy. Certain figures are whole, while others run off the edge. They testify to Goethals’ interest in the point at which language originate, at which random marks start to take on signs of human intentionality, demonstrating the way culture grows out of primordial soup. But the apparent contradiction between culture and nature finally resolves itself: body and text are related, intimately related- in Goethals’ work as in life itself. Without intending to, these works illustrate the fact that cells are made of codes, the ur-writing of genetics and DNA. It is characteristic of Goethals intuition that her work should demonstrate that keen kinship.


Object/Surface. We have seen how Goethals’ surfaces lead us to slow down, show up, and pay attention. But as the absence of frames implies, her works are also three-dimensional objects. They jut out from the wall to become colored boxes, and as often as not, the sides comment on the fronts. We see, for instance, traces of compositional history where the last layers of wax drip down—as if we stood before Keats’s cider press and watched the last oozings hours by hours. Granted, the larger the works the more surfaces predominate. But even the biggest piece retains the hint of an object, quietly remindind us of its boxy character. While the sides emerge into our world, the surfaces retreat into elusiveness, which together creates the impression of glimpsing something far off but right under our nose. Activity is sealed away forever, and however tactile, the content remains tantalizingly out of reach.


Goethals compositions this complicate the beholder’s point of view on the work: do we look out at her paintings, into them, or down at them? In fact, we simultaneously hover over the surfaces and peer into its depths; and such a mobile viewing position, coupled with a medium at once fluid and solid, reiterates those questions about distance and scale: we are microscopically close up or galactically far off? And yet, this unsettling character serves to still the beholder; undecidability issues in meditation.


The dialectic I have traced is emblematized by Goethals’ favorite format. Charasteristically, she begins with a square and then pulls it off slightly out of equilibrium into a subtle vertical rectangle. As a result, we repose in the squareness and we are energized by its displacement. Goethals’ entire project is constructed out of these dichotomies: surface/depth, randomness/design, flesh/word, motion/stillness. Her paintings both enliven and compose us, enliven through composure and compose through action, the two together. Contemplating the images in this catalogue confirms the handsome rewards of Goethals’ risk taking. Her gamble has paid off.


Arden Reed

Professor of English

Pomona College

Claremont, California

Arden Reed
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