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Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin’s home and work space is equal parts laboratory, architectural practice, motorbike garage and petrol head paradise. His sculptural works and drawings push and pull at the boundaries between art and architecture, exploring the porosity and the vulnerability that occurs when technology forms an exoskeleton around us in our daily lives.

Anna Johnson spoke to Richard Goodwin in Issue 47 of Artist Profile.

As we walk into the up-cycled meatworks where Richard Goodwin lives, the first impression is of a cabinet of curiosities splayed horizontal. On one table stands an intricate balsa wood model for a newly commissioned house, its elliptical roofs nestled upon each other like interlocked carapace. There are paintings with mechanical equipment jutting from their splattered surfaces. There are machines exploding, suspended by elegant metal rods. And then, on other densely packed tables are models for hypothetical high-rise buildings that protrude with the artist’s signature alien interventions: his parasites.

There is also a matte black drum kit, a relic of the early years in London and New York seeing punk bands and carving his way out of performance art into his hybrid genre of sculpture, architecture and drawing. Usually a studio quickly reveals a sole aesthetic imperative, but not this one.

Born in Sydney in 1954, Goodwin describes his boyhood as one of physical liberty in Beecroft where no one locked their doors. This idyll was violently truncated when two close friends both lost their mobility in serious accidents. In his new book, God in Reverse, the artist describes the shock of seeing a once-active teenage boy fused to metal rods that support his skull and spine. The meeting point between the human body and the machine made an indelible impression on a sensitive young man poised to study architecture.

If the origin myth of Joseph Beuys (and his highly symbolic materials) is the trauma of being shot down in a war plane, then for Goodwin, the contrast between vulnerable flesh and cold (yet pliant) metal sprang from a rupture in his perception. The open back doors of his childhood slammed shut in this early and violent encounter with human frailty. The body, architecture and machinery soldered together to form the bedrock of his aesthetic.

Goodwin’s early work flowed along the parallel lines of mathematics and drawing and he found a fierce poetic force in each. At a young age, his skill as an architectural draftsman was in demand. The path of becoming a third-generation proponent of the Sydney Modern School was open to him and it may have seemed the obvious choice for anyone witnessing the rapid destruction of the bush suburbs and the city centre. To heal the wound of bad housing was a utopian mission for his mentors: Bruce Rickard and Harry Howard.

But for Goodwin the idea of utopia was a much bigger, distinctly haptic and global project. The idea of sticking a sculpture on a plinth in an empty corporate lobby died in the 1970s. And the notion of one medium or material being privileged over another was suddenly archaic.

‘At eighteen or nineteen I saw the Joseph Beuys work Explaining pictures to a dead hare (1965) and the idea of the city being a wounded animal was urgently real. Using materials at hand and building a whole cosmology from that refuse was so liberating. I wanted to burn down the barriers that separated sculpture from performance and public space from private ritual.’

Goodwin plugged into the idea very early that disparate forms had something important to say to each other. One of the strengths of his early artworks was the force of their premonition: about mutation, urbanism and, most potently of all, the all-pervasive role of the machine in our lives. Long before the iPhone became a permanent appendage he wrote in 1981, ‘I see the human being becoming an insect through high technology. Technology forming an ‘exoskeleton’ around the fleshy human body.’

To express this concept, Goodwin built a prosthetic of steel, aluminium and leather which he attached to his body to become the Exoskeleton Arm. From the early 1980s into the 1990s he developed an idea of three levels of porosity that linked his body to the man-made world and brought the idea of accretion into public works. Porosity is where time bleeds back into structures, revealing its scars, underpinnings and historical and structural secrets.

Few drivers zooming along Sydney’s Gore Hill freeway realise that Goodwin had Aboriginal murals re-engraved into the cement walls. This public work, made in 1992, alluded to Indigenous works lost to road construction.

Trying to fuse an experimental art practice to architecture was ambitious and sometimes frustrating, but he is a polymath who believes that ‘technical limitations are food’. In public works, the functional demands of bridges, roof supports and cast cement can lose the tactility and rough poetry of the original drawing or model. As if to answer this conundrum Goodwin’s gallery shows began to include sculptures that took architecture and industrial design and stripped them back into the warmth of ‘early materials’ like cane, string and rags. If his flightless wings and bicycles weighed down with arcs of cane evoke the unexecuted inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci, I think the resemblance is deliberate. Da Vinci used drawing to smash his way into science. Goodwin uses science to smash into drawing.

‘I’ve always collected mathematics books, I believe that maths is our (Western) dreaming. A funny thing happens when you write down the jewels of maths, geometry and physics. You intuit patterns beyond your grasp, and for me they are an entry point into drawing.’

Working on a huge scale in charcoal on rag paper from 1992 to the present, his vast drawings take real equations (drawn from everywhere, physics to aerodynamics) and sprawl them out as epics. Gauged, stained and intricately revised, the charcoals such as 1441 (2003), Drone Dorge (2013) and Zeppelin Suite (2018) all use mathematical formulae to create a magnetic, graphic fog. Thematically, these drawings allude to the algorithms that beat perpetually beneath the skin of our lives, tracking our movements, watching our conversations, mapping material desires through credit cards and smartphones.

The idea that we are now untethered to heavy machinery and travel light through a world of unseen numbers and codes is the main deception of the age. In reality we are caged, and this is an image that Goodwin predicted decades ago. The futurists believed that man would become a machine but few predicted how deeply we would submit to technology. Goodwin writes passionately about the intricate problems of a disconnected humanity and you can read the theory or look at his work to gauge the depth of his ideas.

The work – sprawled across mediums – holds its own, allowing the eye to rattle through its ratty corridors and elegant cursive numerals with curious pleasure. Across his prolific output is a restless and kinetic quality that threads it all together, a sense that something is about to rupture. This is particularly true of the sculptures he builds from cars, motorbikes and the debris of machines. Co-Isolated Slave (which won the Wynne prize in 2011) fuses a motorcycle rammed vertically into a street hawker’s bike trolley. In this piece luxury and utility converge. Other works, like Carapace (2003), made from car and bike parts, began as computer models or hand-made maquettes and wound up looking like static road accidents, frozen at the point of maximum impact. Like crash test dummies they are both violent and mute. Here is sculpture forging a direct answer to waste.

In the 1950s we saw the car as paradise, years later, it has become a universal burden: ‘What use are we going to put billions of luxury vehicles to when cars go electric? Why can’t they be repurposed to function as an extension of our interiors? Why can’t they be useful parasites to a living room or provide a dwelling place?’

In Goodwin’s view standard functions are there to be ripped open and subverted. To illustrate his point he built a parasite bedroom into the shell of his front gate, a concave husk fitted with a platform for sleep or incubation. Leaving the studio I paused and peered inside, imagining my body inserted into this wooden cocoon. The hollow carved in the gate made me think hard about the role of useful space and materials in 2019. Recycling, surely, has far more scope than simply crushing large metal objects into smaller metal cubes. And art is obliged to shed mere object-hood.

Goodwin has always served as a counterpoint, but he also provides a portal, a crucial ‘what if?’. In the face of border walls being erected to contain populations and security intensifying at every gateway, he presses the idea of Porosity. His theories can be complicated and fanciful. He is a fan of diagrams, blueprints, flowcharts and equations. Yet their message is unified in its simplicity: how can we be human and how can we co-exist?
I remember the Post-Modern art of the early 1980s using irony
and cynicism to ask the same questions. Nihilism had a certain glamour then. But the rapid onset of all-pervasive technology and surveillance has outstripped the most elegant of dystopian theories. Extinction is now and art remains confronted, yet Goodwin clearly feels that it still has teeth.

As the poet T.S. Eliot said so longingly and so long ago:
‘Where is all the knowledge we lost with information?’

Exhibition
Richard Goodwin: Turbulence
21 March – 6 April, 2023
Australian Galleries, Sydney

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47

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