Critical Reflections

Raphaƫlle Goethals: From Here On

Date September 30, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Gerald Peters Gallery
1011 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe

Most of the dots in artist Raphaëlle Goethals’ abstract encaustic paintings are almost exactly the same size and shape as the holes left by the sort of three-hole punch that’s used to fit notepapers into a ringed binder. It’s a minor detail—as are the cleanly delineated dots themselves, barely noticeable against the richly layered and blended colors that surround them in their perfectly spaced rows. But the associations are potent and deeply ingrained in any person who has been educated in our public school system: impersonal bureaucracy, the tools of administration, patterns of thought and behavior that become standards by default.

That Goethals’ dots are so subtle is their strength—and without them the paintings in her latest solo exhibition would be lovely and solidly crafted, but unoriginal. The work would have been as ambiguous as any art could be, ambiguous enough to render it nearly meaningless. Even with the dots, the fifteen pieces that comprised the (ambiguously titled) From Here On show at Gerald Peters Gallery, ranging from portrait size (20” x 18”) to monumental (72” x 64”), suggested much but said very little outright. By and large, the show’s sensibility was determined not by the dots but by the sheer quantity of layers of neutral-toned wax in each composition; of scrapes, drips, track marks, and smears that imparted a nearly invisible but light-altering texture; of grays fading into beiges, with areas of rust or black or deep brown showing through from beneath, creating a sense of depth that kept the eye searching for more.

The subtle liquid forms created by these manipulations, some colored and obvious, others clear and unnoticeable unless you were extremely close, formed a scenery reminiscent of a reflection seen in a rippling pond on a cloudy day. The effect was calming, but not without movement, and at times the work began to seem to breathe like nature breathes, with a rolling sensation present in the dried wax piled atop itself in multiple stages. I suspected that this vagueness may be obscuring a deep vacancy—that the artist’s meanderings were merely visual and little else—but her work kept hinting at more, and then more. In this alluring fog, in which it was unclear even whether the fog was indeed fog, all that ambiguity became unsettling. That serene-looking haze somehow made it difficult not to imagine something more sinister, or brutal, or simply unhappy hiding in there.

Yet the solid visual footing provided by those inescapable dots, arranged in grids marking regular intervals at once atop, amid, and within the foggy fields, raised an even more unsettling philosophical question: Did this perpetually impenetrable veil, with only a few small points of reference to anchor the eye, truly represent the reality of the world in which we must live? Isn’t it true that—limited as we are by human senses, intellect, and proportion—there’s no chance of definitively knowing anything, ever? All we can do, Goethals reminded us, is jump from one small piece of information to the next, making all our decisions solely on the very little we know, hoping simply that our choices will make the world a tiny bit better rather than worse.

The work was strongest where these circular cues combined with the open-endedness suggested by the translucent wax to create a picture of the haze of personal experience conflated with the collective global haze that results from discontinuities in the way information travels. In the large and prominently placed Kanaal (Dutch for Channel), for instance, blood-red dots overlaid a deep gray cloud that faded to black at the edges, plus strips of rectangles that looked like tank tracks or warehouse windows scattered throughout.
But none of these elements leaped out to announce themselves to the viewer. Rather, the viewer had to find them. They were the truth that was invisible until it was obvious—I was reminded of the term “the fog of war”—and the result was quietly devastating.

The most overtly political piece, titled Flag, scrambled (2009)—with its red, white, and blue palette giving an impression of confused patriotism—complemented Kanaal’s hints at military-industrial matters while also giving a nod to Jasper Johns’ Expressionist-meets-Pop aesthetic (another hybridization of visual styles, like Goethals’). Most of the pieces, however, lacked the potency of Kanaal, instead coming across as vaguely familiar explorations into emotional or spiritual terrain: challenging ground, sure, but already extensively trod through the modes Goethals has chosen.

The lesson, in both arenas, was about large-scale teachings of ideologies and their inevitable consequences. The problem was that Goethals, too, seemed to be the product of a machine-like education system. Perhaps her artistic vision has been limited by art-historical lenses that tend to streamline and, yes, kanaal all emerging creativity into a series of progressive steps. Despite her compositions’ suggestions of what lies just beyond our view, she was still staying close to a well-known path through post-World War II visual language without really veering into the wide-open landscape that surrounded it. It is as if she were looking at her world through a small punched hole.