The female figures in Rachel Goodyear’s artworks – drawings, animations mostly – are of this moment. Strikingly so. It’s a subtle, but unexpected detail of her work. As an artist who primarily employs the visual language of fantasy, you might not expect her subjects to feel so modern. They do. It’s this tension that makes Goodyear’s work linger long in your mind.
Goodyear, born in Lancashire in 1978, makes illustrations, and often makes animations from those illustrations. She lives in Manchester now, and works there too. Stirrings, her latest solo exhibition co-commissioned by Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery and University of Salford Art Collection, consists of a number of pencil and pencil crayon drawings, an archive of work-in-progress sketches, and a central animation, populated with many figures from the accompanying drawings.
She often draws full or partial bodies; clothed or unclothed. She draws animals we’d loosely term as beasts; wolves, foxes, birds of prey. She draws objects, mystical or semi-mystical ones; crystals, barbed wire. Each individual drawing might be a scene comprising any and all of those components; a tangle of wolves entwined in red string, a girl contorted in a bridge pose adorned with feeding bats, the back of a woman in a voluminous red dress with a pack of wolves gathering under her skirts. These drawings may take us into a land of mythical stories, but they are not the stories we already know, because things are at odds with one another. Where we might have established notions of predator/prey or fear/love dynamics in fantasy and fairytales, Goodyear deliberately obfuscates. That woman with the wolves under her skirt for instance – is calm, composed. Threat comes from elsewhere in these images. This is fantasy eating its own tail.
Goodyear has said herself that her chosen medium, drawing, ‘gives you this ability to push through walls’, and each of these images in isolation is an exercise in passing through walls, from the real to the unreal. They bristle up against each other, the real and the unreal. Goodyear pays attention to human form. She is a masterful artist, each contorted hand, pointed toe and curved back is rendered perfectly, in terms of composition. It is this which makes her incorporation of macabre or unearthly elements so captivating. A girl – a perfect girl – sits nonchalantly atop a sparse tree, which is rooted from a wooden chair.
There exists around Goodyear’s work an implied constellation of references. One that could loosely be deemed the ‘feminist surreal’. As Dr Catriona McAra writes in the collaborative publication Of Wolves and Wild Women, ‘I was struck by how extensively Goodyear has replied to [Dorothea] Tanning, be it through her somnambulist child-women, or canine bestiaries’. It’s true. Goodyear draws extensively on and within the universe of Dorothea Tanning. Tanning, whose work has come to stand for all things transformative, bodily, mythic and spatial. The comparison is about more than just, to put it simply, ethereal vibes.
In fact, there is a wider constellation of reference critics like McAra bring into conversations about Goodyear’s work. Leonora Carrington (another Lancashire-born female surrealist, born and raised within witching-distance of Pendle Hill), Donna Harraway, Helene Cixous, Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois. Wide-ranging in practice, but deeply specific in their powers. In the text that accompanies Stirrings, McAra writes that what binds them together are ‘feminist textures and their shrewd overturning of femininity’. She calls it an ‘Ariadne thread’. I’d propose another name to loop into that thread: Rebecca Tamás.
As a poet and critic, Tamás is fascinated with the human and non-human, and ‘why this delicate connection might be the most important relationship of our times’. In her 2020 collection of essays, Strangers, in an essay entitled ‘On Mystery’, she writes of her very real childhood fear of ghosts. ‘It didn’t matter that there were real dangers out in the world, perverts, murderers, thieves’. In this passage, Tamás’ talks about the real-world parallels to her paranormal fears: ‘Nothing they were capable of doing was any different to what a human might inflict, if they decided to do it… If they wanted to kill me, I might not know the reason, but there would be one, somewhere. A plan, a rationale – cruelty, or sacrifice, or pleasure. Some sordid but namable thing. So, I was free’.
‘So I was free’. Acting out our deepest fears is a way for us to gain control over them. We know this, from psychiatrists and horror film fans alike. The artworks in Goodyear’s exhibition are an exercise in acting out fears from the deepest recesses of our subconscious. One drawing, ‘Green Ghost’ (2019), is a simple, haunting drawing of a ghost. Or rather, a childlike take on a ghost: a figure is covered by a sheet.
In another piece, entitled ‘Squabble’ (2013), we see two miniscule figures – Goodyear’s drawings are physically small, making her detailed pencil work even more captivating – tugging at a severed head. Neither figure has their own head. They are fighting, seemingly viciously, over a head, wild tendrils of its hair splaying outwards. It’s a tiny, impossible image, one I haven’t stopped thinking about for days.
While this Medusa-like image recalls myth, it feels incredibly of-this-moment, too. The girls in Goodyear’s drawing are of right now, I am certain of it. It’s in the way they plait their hair (modern, French-style), the nods to the prints of their clothes (breton tees and abstract prints) and it’s in the eye-masks they wear to bed. Night demons even come for those with skincare routines, it would seem.
Nature is turned on its head, repeatedly. In Strangers, Tamás writes about panpsychism, the school of thought that ‘everything in nature has a mind, or at least mind-like-qualities‘. She goes on to ask: ‘Do trees, which communicate through roots and soil, which display ‘crown shyness’ (where they avoid touching each other’s leaves in the high canopy) display a sensitivity to being, an ability to express their will, a goal-directedness, which we might consider sentient?’ In Goodyear’s art, nature certainly feels sentient. Rock formations and sapling trees interact with the world around them in ways in which we typically do not understand them to.
We are invited to make another addition to the constellation: Ana Mendieta, whose earth-art photographs also turn nature on its head. The artist made works in which her own body was part of the natural landscape. Lying by a cliff edge, she appears to grow an excess of wildflowers. In another, she lies at the bottom of a shallow pool. Like Goodyear’s images, the relationship between subject and nature is unclear. They act upon each other in strange and dangerous ways.
Mendieta once said of her own work: ’My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy, which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid’. Another way of saying panpsychism, perhaps?
Elsewhere, nature is responsible for mutilation. Razor sharp crystalline formations protrude from women’s necks, or radiate from their eyes. Goodyear has stated in previous interviews that periods within her practice were in response to time spent in pain, hospital and recovery.
While the images in Stirrings may not be in direct reference to that autobiographical experience of pain, the work does call to mind the famous story of Frida Kahlo’s trolley car accident in early life, which left her pelvis skewered by a pole, and suffering from lifelong pain and fertility issues. This pain came to be a dominant visual feature in Kahlo’s painting, repeatedly depicting herself as physically fractured, penetrable or in literal shards.
Look again though. The drawing of a woman with shards of blue-green crystals radiating from her eyes is titled ‘Kaleidoscope’ (2019). We might not see this as an infirmity, simply a distortion of seeing. A skewering of seeing.
The centrepoint of the Grundy Art Gallery exhibition is a 13-minute animation entitled ‘Hole’ (2022). It is populated with many of the characters we have already met, something which Professor Patricia Allmer describes as ‘intraouvre connectivities’. We might call them constellations, or threads, or even (as Mendieta did) ‘the irrigation veins of this universal fluid’. ‘Hole’ is a descent into the world of Goodyear’s drawings. It is soundtracked with a crunchy, textural piece by composer Matt Wand.
In the film, the viewer descends down a cave-like shaft, while Goodyear’s women, wolves and assorted beasts interact with one another. They interact with one another, they squirm and contort, they cause each other pain, or they simply just pass on by. It is a pleasure to dwell in discomfort, in the dark.
As Cathy Garner writes; ‘Rachel Goodyear’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’. That’s it, I think. That’s what these drawings are getting at: a shared language. Mendieta said of her own work, ‘My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe’. In Stirrings, Goodyear is drawing towards a shared discomfort, one which is generous, haunting and true.
Rachel Goodyear: Stirrings was at Grundy Art Gallery 26 March – 11 June 2022, before moving to Salford Museum and Art Gallery in partnership with University of Salford Art Collection 15 July 2022 – 26 February 2023.
Lucy Holt is a writer based in Manchester.