Coincidence and Constellations

Rachel Goodyear, studio snapshot sketches, 2020.

This text was produced during an online residency in March 2020, in response to the planned Rachel Goodyear exhibition at Leeds Arts University Gallery. The exhibiton was postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions and the residency took place online, resulting in the publication Rachel Goodyear: Of Wolves and Wild Women. A video recording of an in-conversation with Patricia Allmer and Rachel Goodyear can be viewed here.

I hadn’t heard the word quotidian before the Spring of 2020. Then, suddenly, I came across it everywhere, like a stone in my shoe. There it was: in everything I read or watched or listened to, lying in wait.

Rachel Goodyear, ‘Company’, 2020. Pencil and watercolour on paper.

I decided pretty quickly that it was not a word to be trusted. Its doggedness aside, quotidian simply doesn’t sound like what it means. With its showy Q, its vertebrae of percussive consonants and its rhythmic, reptilian consistency, it lacks the modest restraint necessary to evoke the humdrum. (Humdrum: now there’s a word with Ronseal promise.) Still, it was incessant, turning up beneath the sofa cushions, coiled in the peg basket, and in my jacket pocket with an old receipt. One evening, I shook it out of a cereal box and it lay there stubbornly amongst my cornflakes. Glibly polysyllabic. An alien word for the everyday.

It was, of course, confirmation bias, but it seemed to me a doubly strange coincidence that it showed up when it did, on account of The Global Pandemic and The Lockdown. Because, there I was — amongst the thrice used teabags and nomadic biros— in a landscape which was entirely familiar, but a situation which was unprecedented, horrific even. It was a mise en abîme, or a kitchen sink drama. The everyday had become alien and, like a lot of the world, I was at home, but also, decidedly not.

So the circumstances were cunning, baffling, powerful; the word was quotidian; and the teabags were spent. But the timing was apposite and, I thought, possibly triply so since I had just been invited to write something in response to an exhibition of Rachel Goodyear’s work. The virus saw to it that the show was postponed and I was left with a month of Sundays and a lonely year of March in which to ruminate. And ruminate I did. For the most part on the serendipity because what RG’s drawings instil in me, above all else, is a feeling of unease with the everyday.

The wood was parched and Freud said, ‘don’t look now: the trees have ears’. Stretched between their barbs where butcher birds begin their skewered larders, scarlet cords pulled taut. And they were there, the fallen coven, caught up in that web of bloodless arteries. They looked as if they’d tumbled from the sky and fallen splayed amongst the branches, limbs akimbo.

In the last few weeks, I have misplaced lot of time trying to describe how RG’s drawings make me feel but language won’t cooperate. Months have passed since I began this text, and little has changed save the gradual retreat of a certain word back into obscurity. I almost miss it now— quotidian— it had texture. The days have turned to calf’s foot jelly, the nights are drawing in and I think I might be very lonely. At any rate, my thoughts won’t coalesce. Sometimes my head is full of smoke and I can’t think straight.

At the outset of the project, I spoke with RG. We met in the style of the time which was (and remains) virtual and talked about her work and automatic writing, processes and instinct. Since then, I have thought occasionally about the parlance ‘stream of consciousness’– how it’s a pleasing turn of phrase and, on its surface, beautiful. Something about constant motion, and the trickling of thought, and how it ebbs and flows and whorls in inlets, bays and estuaries. Something about dipping your fingers into a fresh running brook. Definitely something about babbling.

Recently, I had another thought about the phrase’s resonance. Because water cuts the path of least resistance and I think the mind does likewise. A creature of habit, it can trace its way from unfamiliar subjects to associations it frequents. And my mind draws the same lines over and over. Which is why I think that constellations could also prove a suitable analogy for thought. Because the mind can take a series of references and link them dot-to-dot into a personal lore, a Great Bear, The Seven Sisters that You Never Had. Constellations and the narrative of conscious thought; at once revelatory and arbitrary.

I don’t know that that’s beside the point.

In another place, a she-wolf raises up her lonely head to a starless sky and hums a note which takes the shape of cloth. Wolves are best known for their howling but their other songs go sadly overlooked. In some field recordings you can hear the sounds they form before the wail. Between their jaws are meek, grey vowels. Wolves sigh and whisper like the wind, and let these hollow intonations swell like the gale which echoes through the rafters and slips the fragile leaves from trees. Wolves speak to each other with the voice of a storm. The tame wolf here is mourning for a pack. She breathes and fabric folds in pleats and drapes. Lupus Lupus, pining in the woods sighs the dream of a friend and breathes a figure into a scarf. A woman takes shape in the song of a wolf.

Rachel Goodyear, Clearing the throat, 2014, pencil on paper.

Before the wild garlic finished, when the dandelions were timing the end of Spring, I wrote that RG’s drawings provoke in me ‘a feeling of unease with the every day’. I think I was referring to a disconnect, or a suspicion, or maybe a kind of desire. I keep finding myself writing and scoring through phrases like ‘Oppressive Normalcy’ or ‘Crisis of Authenticity’ as if they clear things up. Perhaps I could describe the feeling thus: as the apprehension that the concrete world is claustrophobic and Real life is happening elsewhere but, at the same time, it’s the knowledge that Elsewhere is not a Real place.

When is a door not a door? When it is jarring

In our distanced exchange, RG spoke about the thin veil between consciousness and subconsciousness. She called her pictures membranes. Through their unattainable narrative logic, their ambiguity, RG hopes to offer access to sensations which language struggles to express (as I am finding).

There is a certain vertiginous sensation which surfaces now and again when the night air is particularly invigorating or the music that you’re listening to has the sort of pulping rhythm that pulsates between your lungs. And you feel as though your eyes illuminate your path and you could drink the moon like lemonade. You feel effervescent. I suppose it’s lust or joie de vivre. There used to be a song I’d play to feel this way. I’d put it on and imagine myself in a long green dress, dancing around a bonfire with a moon overhead and damp grass licking my soles, engaging in some ritual or other, communing with nature. Living reckless, ridiculous fantasy.

There is a certain contrary sensation which sneaks up on me from time to time. Like when, a while ago, I dreamt my jaws were locked and my mouth was full of beetles. Or when, the other day I had the fleeting apprehension that I don’t have any blood. Sometimes I feel that I’m all veneer—Formica in a poly-blend. My stomach acid clots to paste, and I am mournfully distinct from nature.

Both feelings are irrational. But that latter makes me ache for the former with the funny tension of a materialist who longs for a soul; an illogical positivist who knows they are just chemistry and meat, but talks about her mind a lot and longs to astrally project. Someone who believes in the tangible world but is half sick of its shadows.

Not here: a woman folds her spine back limbo-like. A low slung willow bow, limber timber lumbers closer to the floor to see a sky which is blotted out with cloud and smoke. A cloth wound tight around her eyes which do no weeping, she is blinded. Beyond the veil the view is clear.

People talk, myself included, of blurred lines and muddy waters, grey areas and brain fog. We speak of clarity as if we believe that what is easy to apprehend visually is easy to comprehend but if seeing can’t be said to be believing then it is hardly tantamount to understanding. And, much like how when I’m in the dark I’m none the wiser, no one would argue that a life without cataracts gets one closer to the truth.

But where was I? Besides amongst the thrice used teabags? And where were RG’s drawings? In relief.

Sometimes, RG said, she takes her figures from cuttings. I wrote this down because the violence of the word appealed to me. She severs them from context and drops them into sparse environs. I look at my surroundings and find that I’m outnumbered by objects. It makes me think about the aptness of the word impedimenta. But in RG’s drawings a single tree evokes a forest. A cloud of ink, which rests upon the surface of the paper, shows the depth of night. When a woman’s eyes have turned to crystals and the world itself is scarce, seeing the wood for the trees can hardly be a problem.

Taking off her heavy woollen overcoat, she feels a shift. The ground is still as always, but her organs, once internal are no longer. They tumble down her front in knotted curves, the broken necks of swans. Beneath her cloche is naught but fungus and she is anchored to the spot by cordyceps. A small voice in her head says: well what is a woman but a vessel? Then: What is a vessel but a ship? And though her mouth is full of answers, she is laden with spores. Finally, she is seaworthy: sound and silent.

When ‘quotidian’ deserted me, I tried to find a portal in the biscuit tin. I held a hag stone to my eye and gave the mirror sideways glances in the hopes that it would crack from side to side. Today I asked myself the question: Am I wholly real or really whole?

Sometimes when I’m out walking, I am compelled to touch things. Sea-licked pebbles and fresh, young leaves are particularly inviting. Plucking lilac sprigs to hold their veins against my palm makes me feel like Baba Yaga, but it’s comforting to know that there’s a world outside myself. That contrary, Cotardic feeling I struggled to expound before is, I think an extension of this: a need for sensation or a frustration of touch.

Rachel Goodyear, ‘Putting down roots’, 2014, boxed assemblage drawing, pencil and watercolour on laser-cut paper.

RG called her drawings ‘raw’, but I fancy I am ‘poached’. Screen-cooked and hermetically sealed. I’ve been thinking about Georges Bataille who held that dirtiness was ‘proper to man’ and that the less clean a thing is, the more human it is. He spoke about a populace who had consigned its real and barbarous nature to back alleys and remote abattoirs and who dismissed their instincts in favour of the ‘modern religion of hygiene’. I don’t agree with him and yet I feel unnatural. Of course, currently sterility is paramount and isolation requisite so perhaps it’s understandable that I relate more to loft insulation than the buzzards shrieking overhead.

In RG’s drawings, women folk and woodland creatures dance upon the page. They find themselves ensnared, go blind and spill their guts. Theirs is not a comfortable existence, but I think I envy them. Sometimes my head is full of smoke and won’t think straight. Today, my head is full of words and won’t think curved. I think I’d like to trade that in – to be severed from my context, swap the furniture for fresh air and my vision for insight. There’s a part of me that wants to feel what RG’s figures feel. These women chase their intuition, move with stealth through rocky cliffs and summon phantoms from the clouds. RG’s drawings make me want to run with wolves. They make me thirsty for a coven, a folk heritage, an affinity with nature, and wits to match my new precarious existence.

But the impulse is a problem one and it has to do with privilege and safety. Because it’s easy to be seduced by risk when you are comfortable and it’s grotesque to resent your comfort. I’m grasping for a spiritual existence to which I’m not entitled. My dream green dress can only ever be a costume.

The mountain reminds the wolf that the side of her head is a temple, as red as the roof of her mouth.

 The deer’s breath carries the greeting: how now quiet huntress?

And the ‘ess’ is the wind in the trees.

Last, the cardinal warns with its song: though one swallow alone will not make a summer make, it is plenty to drown in.

But all my clothing feels like costume.

What makes a woman has NEVER been defined by chromosomes or the blood that some are falsely told appears like clockwork. Today I wondered: is womanhood instead a disconnect between the flesh that she is caught in and her perception of it or by a will to shape-shift? But I don’t know. It’s hard to work with definitions when truth is just a thing with feathers which you can’t be sure exists.

Maybe that’s my real problem—my need for clarity. I talked about a need for touch, but the two things are connected: truth and touch. It’s why we say things like grasp, apprehend and get to grips with when we’re learning and why being out of touch with things spells ignorance.

Or maybe it’s my constellation that’s to blame for this unease, because I’m thinking round and round in straight lines as if circling a drain.

In any case, Elsewhere is not a Real place, and Real-ness is not a thing with feathers but a sort of perception of one. And closing my eyes won’t bring me insight, just as climbing a tree won’t make me one with the nature I’m already a part of.

What RG’s drawings instil in me, above all else, is a longing to be something I am not.

This exploration was produced as part of a Corridor8/ Leeds Arts University collaborative residency. Rachel Goodyear’s exhibition is postponed until further notice, pending the reopening of the Blenhiem Walk Gallery. The full pdf publication, with writing by Patricia Allmer and Catriona McAra and designed by Ashleigh Armitage and Laure Carnet of Dust Collective, is available here.

Cathy Garner is a Yorkshire-based artist and writer.

This commission and residency publication is supported by Leeds Arts University.

Published 14.01.2021 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

2,579 words