Jack Goldstein: A Sketch Turned Into a Portrait

An exhilarating survey of a single artist's work now on exhibit at Orange County Museum of Art, “Jack Goldstein x 10,000” is, insanely, the late Canadian-born artist's first American retrospective. Covering multiple mediums—film, painting, writing, sculpture, performance and sound design (and all of it brilliant and visionary)—it's the short movies, one sculpture and an installation that feel most like a direct plug-in to Goldstein's psyche. Guest curator Philipp Kaiser resurrects the artist as a man who put himself out there, took risks and, sadly/typically, never attained the same status as many of the artists he's often lumped in with, including Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo.

It's a single wooden sculpture, Untitled, 1969-71, posthumously re-created after the original was destroyed, that distills that alienation: 15 wood blocks, with one black one lying neatly atop the 13 unpainted others, stretching 9 feet high, as another (painted white) lies on the floor at the structure's base. In its avant-garde formality, a direct (even self-pitying) reflection on the pain of artistic struggle: The competition rises to the top of a rather bland stack of other artists, while the singular visionary struggles to join the others, but ends up lying in the dirt.

There's more than just simmering resentment on display here, and 1977's theatrical, mesmerizing installation Burning Window is a fine case in point. A simple panel window is set in a distant red wall, fire licking the glass. Are we inside a house looking out at a world bursting into flame, or are we outside, watching a fire consume the inside of the house, the walls so hot they've turned red? Goldstein intended the former, but both work, the artist cleverly capturing the excitement behind destruction.

It's with Goldstein's films, however, that the exhibit truly captivates. As Austrian film director Michael Haneke has shown repeatedly, the longer a camera holds onto an event, the more the scene becomes about something other than what we're seeing. No longer about the action, it's about what's behind the action. That meditative quality is rampant throughout Goldstein's cinematic works, a psychological stew of eroticism, simmering violence, failed attempts to escape it, personal remoteness and, oddly, the rare, brief moment of immersive joy.

A mouth wraps its lips around A Nail hammered into a piece of wood, worries it back and forth, then slowly pulls it out. Arthurian and sexual in its implications, at its core, the film is a surprisingly sensual depiction of art creation. The equally sexy A Ballet Shoe features a pink slipper en pointe, two hands gently pulling loose its long pink bow, the foot coming to rest on the floor, spent after the encounter. Pollock comes to mind in A Glass of Milk, as the white liquid ejaculates and splatters with every assaultive blow from a nearby fist.

The artist's tacit admission of his aloneness is heartrending. In Jack, a man stands in the middle of a stretch of desert, saying the artist's first name repeatedly as the cameraman walks himself back and back, away until we can no longer hear him. Goldstein once claimed there was nothing special about himself, that you could look in the phone book and find 10,000 Jack Goldsteins there (thus the name of the exhibition), and that Palahniukian “You're not a unique snowflake” feeling is reinforced in Fingerprints, as a digit dipped in ink leaves its singular mark on a white surface . . . until the camera pulls back to show that it is just one of a multitude of black spots, none of them touching the other.

Escape is futile as the illumination of A Spotlight chases and locates a running, frantic Goldstein in his studio, and the animated bird on Bone China flies the perimeter of the plate, going in circles until it simply can't do it anymore. Similarly, the artist speeds through passages from a book on time and space in A Reading, his voice amping as flames inevitably begin to consume the pages he's holding. On the other end of the spectrum is the silent Some Butterflies, a brief redemption from the despair on display. Five tiny, winged puppets are attached to the fingers and thumb of a right hand. Frozen through most of the 30-second film, when the fingers flutter and wiggle, I laughed out loud with elation and surprise.

Kaiser deserves a medal for resurrecting this forgotten artist and bringing him to our attention so vividly. It's a fitting eulogy to a man dead for almost a decade and crippled by feelings that his work never got the attention it deserved, and one of his many aphorisms comes to mind: “He was a sketch; now he is a portrait.” Thanks to Kaiser, that full-fledged portrait has been pulled from the attic, dusted off and made visible..


This review appeared in print as “A Sketch Turned Into a Portrait: OCMA reminds us of the brilliance of a long-forgotten Canadian artist with 'Jack Goldstein X 10,000.'”

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