Evolving into spontaneity
Brent Godfrey’s intimate paintings of childhood, family, and other subjects delight with touches of humor but offer more to the observer who wants to go deeper. Godfrey distorts and obscures imagery through a fusion of abstraction and figuration, providing his works with a feeling of nostalgia and of memories blurred by time. Nature/Nurture, a show of recent works, opens on Friday, June 26, at LewAllen Galleries. On the cover is Godfrey’s Upstage, an oil on linen from 2015.
Sometimes, even a slight degree of abstraction can change how we perceive a narrative or figurative painting, and it can also alter what we make of its meaning. Like deteriorating photographs from an old family album, Brent Godfrey’s images depict domestic life, children, and animals, their faces obscured by streaks of paint that suggest fading memories. A figure’s dress, the background and foreground imagery, and other details all smudge and blur, bleeding into one another. While Godfrey’s use of gestural brushwork, drips, and flecks of color recalls the impromptu nature of action painting, there’s a logic at work here — abstraction in the service of representation. “The marks that create and encompass my figures and the obscure surroundings in which they are placed have several purposes,” Godfrey told Pasatiempo. “They imply time and suggest one is viewing a thought, not simply a place or event. The marks themselves become metaphor, layering the content with emotional and intellectual ambiguities that lie outside recognizable form.” Nature/Nurture ,an exhibit of Godfrey’s paintings, opens Friday, June 26, at LewAllen Galleries.
Godfrey’s paintings are often candid and intimate, like family snapshots. Far from being formal portraits, they capture moments that feel natural, particularly his images of children. “All of my figures and content are autobiographical,” Godfrey said. “Oftentimes, the child/subject in the painting is me.” In the painting Pluck, an infant in diapers plays in a garden. He’s snatched a flower from the garden and holds it in one hand. In the other, he holds a feather apparently plucked from a nearby rooster. To a child, perhaps, it’s all the same. “My figurative works are usually inspired by photographs I have taken or photos that I am in. This evokes memory which infuses my paintings with the unexpected. Memory incites emotions and triggers unforeseen thoughts.”
Children in Godfrey’s work can be cruel. Upstage, a humorous painting, shows a little girl pushing a fawn out of the way with her hand so she can be the center of attention. The fawn is from a series in which numerous depictions of the same deer are rendered in different styles and placed in different contexts: post-Pop, realistic, and varying degrees of abstraction; pastoral settings, desert landscapes, and cityscapes. The series shows some of the range of his abilities as a painter. The works in Nature/Nurture also display a broad expanse of artistic techniques, often combined into a single canvas. His mash-up of genres, too, makes his work difficult to classify but a consistent element is the interplay of objective and nonobjective imagery. “My mind doesn’t differentiate between figures/objects and abstraction when I am painting. Everything is equally ‘real.’ Light and shadow create form. Line directs the eye. Color is conceived as purposeful relationships to seduce and conjure recollections.”
Nothing in the paintings feels forced. The interaction of carefully rendered and free-flowing marks works harmoniously, giving the paintings their full effect. “I begin with purposefulness and evolve into spontaneity. Starting in control, I quickly fall into servitude, responding to what is on front of me. I find that rigidly adhering to a preconceived idea creates tedious paintings. Spontaneous, subconscious interaction between an educated, experienced artist and his canvas is what creates an enduring allure.”
Godfrey’s canvases are full of contrasts. The human form in Testosterone, for instance, is painted in near-monochromatic hues while a vibrant use of color describes the environment that surrounds him. The painting’s flexing male subject seems culled from a bygone era. Bunny Boy, however, is marked by a thematic contrast. The boy of the title is dressed in a bunny costume. It’s a common enough image of the sort parents take of their kids at Halloween, but the child is holding a gun. Something “cute” thus becomes something more ambiguous, a thought reinforced by the suggestion of a nightmarish face to the boy’s left. “Layering contrasts, both physical and psychological, is integral to my work,” Godfrey said. “The initial experience of my paintings is usually friendly and inviting. People can stop there and enjoy them on that level if they wish. Complexities lie beneath for those who like a challenge and enjoy digging deeper.”
Among the works on exhibit are a pair of paintings from his series Personae, which show a nude male figure traversing a landscape and the faint image of a bear echoing his movements, suggesting an animal power or spirit residing within him, perhaps as something subconscious and instinctual. In this context, the nudity is fitting. The man is closer to his natural state. Howl, a powerful image from the series, was inspired by the Delmore Schwartz poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me,” subtitled “The witness of the body.” According to Godfrey, the painting is about apprehensions surrounding our physicality. “I photographed my model from different angles but chose frontal nudity because I wanted him more than naked; I wanted him exposed. It also forces viewers to face their comfort issues with bodies. He is purposely sexually desirable. The ‘forest’ he wanders through is groomed. It is mainly of his own making. Most of the angst we experience is in our own backyard.”
Nature/Nurture is light in tone, if you choose to see it that way. Upstage is a whimsical painting. In the Beginning, portraying a father and son, is tender and sweet, and Search 2, showing a group of kids on an Easter egg hunt, has an air of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. “While I am very serious about my art, the work is rarely heavy. There is nearly always a thread of humor. The first glance at my work often brings a smile or a chuckle. Humor is often based on things that make us a little uncomfortable.”
Brent Godfrey: Nature/Nurture & John Fincher: Botanica Reception 5 p.m. Friday, June 26; exhibits through July 26 LewAllen Galleries, 1613 Paseo de Peralta, 505-988-3250