Letter From Richmond, VA: Judith Godwin and Arlene Shechet at the Anderson Gallery

September 15th, 2012  |  Published in Digest, September 2012

Into the Depth 1957 Oil on canvas, 51 x 84 inches Photograph by Jeffrey Sturges; courtesy of the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX

Pairing the work of Judith Godwin and Arlene Shechet seems odd.  But that’s just what Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts has done in Judith Godwin:  Early Abstractions and Arlene Shechet:  That Time at the Anderson Gallery in Richmond, Virginia.  The two rooms on the first floor feature Shechet’s work while Godwin garners the larger and more desirable second floor, comprised of three rooms.  Godwin, a Virginia native and celebrated alum of the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), is most known for her Abstract Expressionist work that she began in the 1950s.  A student of Hans Hofmann and the Art Students League, Godwin’s contemporaries included Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Marcel Duchamp.  Until recently, Godwin’s work had been marginally recognized but feminist readings of art history have rewritten Godwin into the canon after she, like her female counterparts, continued to be overlooked in the all-male club of post-war artists.

In the rooms reserved for Godwin, there unfolds a clear distinction between three different “types” of paintings.  One room has colorful and bright works with swirling reds, cyans, and ochers in garish color combinations that resemble Pollock’s early paintings from the 1940s.  In the second room, white seems to be the prevailing color; it is used in large strokes onto multi-colored grounds.  For example, Into the Depth (1957) layers broad fields of white paint against orange, black, and blue to create a composition that pushes and pulls between the intersecting planes.  The final room favors black, which Godwin applied in heavy-handed thick slashes onto the canvas that in turn creates a somber and elegiac mood, as seen in Red Lightening (1966).

On the other hand Shechet, a New York-based artist and recipient of recent critical acclaim, makes anthropomorphic and enigmatic three-dimensional objects out of clay, plaster, steel, concrete, and wood through casting and handbuilding.  For Shechet, process and chance dictate form, which allows ambiguity and creates viscerally attractive objects.  Tough Puff (2008) has a surface that begs to be touched and a form that abstractly resembles a bodily organ.  Like Tough Puff, most works have been placed onto some sort of pedestal made of welded steel, stacked kiln bricks, or blocks of wood.  This in turn elevates the objects to a human scale; Shechet further encourages this anthropomorphic interpretation by scattering the work about the gallery space.  Each in turn becomes distinct and referential to the body because it forces the viewer to consider the work in relation to his or her own space.   The most successful works jockey with and engage the viewer to consider their own physical body within a given space and time.

Still other dissimilarities exist.  Godwin’s works on display are from the 1950s and 1960s while Shechet’s work is from the last half-a-dozen years.  This large dichotomy in periods sets up a strange juxtaposition and places Godwin’s work within a museum setting while relegating Shechet’s objects to a gallery display.  This creates an unavoidable subservient feeling to Shechet’s work.  Media and subject matter also differ.  The large two-dimensional paintings by Godwin often seem to be self-referential, interested in exploring themes of color, form, movement, and composition.  In contrast, Shechet’s work suggests deeper meanings tied loosely to the figure, because of their scale, placement on pedestals, and surface texture.  Ultimately, Godwin’s work can be considered emblematic of high modernism while Shechet’s objects are quintessentially post-modern.

Yet at the same time, parallels and cross-references begin to appear between the two artists.  In some works Godwin too references the figure – see Male Study (1954) or Martha Graham (1956) – or in the landscape works, such as Purple Mountain (1957).  Like in Shechet’s work, these abstract allusions allow the viewer to consider his or her own body in relation to the aesthetic subject.  Additionally, both artists make use of varying gestural movements and surface textures to create palpable objects that at times merge the language of sculpture and painting.  Notice how the pedestals in Shechet’s Who and Who and How and Where (2012) have geometric motifs that reference the vocabulary of painting while Godwin’s buildup of paint creates shallow three-dimensionality.  Finally, each artist exudes a similar organic approach to artmaking.  By favoring chance, meditation, and process-based practices both artists allow the media to dictate some measure of final form.  Although divergent in display, interpretation, period, and media, compelling arguments can still be made for combining the work of Shechet and Godwin within a single show.

Judith Godwin:  Early Abstractions and Arlene Shechet:  That Time through December 9 at the Anderson Gallery, VCU School of the Arts, 907 ½ W. Franklin St., Richmond, Virginia.  Gesture:  Judith Godwin and Abstract Expressionism, a retrospective of Godwin’s work, runs concurrently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia through January 27, 2013

–Amanda Dalla Villa Adams

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