Rochelle Goldberg: Psychomachia
Psychomachia, Rochelle Goldberg’s second solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery, brings new material explorations into her intricately structured universe of personal and art-historical iconography. The show features fragmented figures cast in bronze, unruly sourdough sculptures, and glass bowls alongside some of her usual materials. Goldberg continues to frame her work with the story of Mary of Egypt, who gave up her worldly existence to live in the desert. She is said to have carried with her only three loaves of bread, and the inverted relationship between Mary’s bodily needs and her spiritual flourishing permeates the exhibition. Goldberg hones in on a series of connected symbols and combines them with such a peculiar form of precision that the boundaries of their conventional meaning begins to erode. The force of her associative poetics builds through repetition, and this iterative approach proves necessary: Goldberg insists that even commonplace materials take on strange new significance through her understated transformations.
In the center of the long corridor that forms the beginning of the exhibition space sits a deceivingly straightforward work titled Great Gardener Makes (2020). As the first object to confront a visitor, this sculpture serves as an orientation to, or perhaps a warning about, the strange allegorical mutations that are underway. What looks like a hearty loaf of bread sits at the far end of a low, bed-shaped platform. Crispy chunks and a dusting of crumbs lay scattered across the white cloth surface of the pedestal. As I moved closer, I noticed that something was wrong with the bread. The form was actually a glass bowl from which the dough had overflowed and become fused to the outside edges as it baked. A slow, hot, yeasty eruption played out in my head. Witnessing the crusty dough cling to the outside of the bowl made me salivate but also caused my stomach to feel like it was turning inside out. In the sunken middle of the bowl I caught a glimpse of another unexpected twist: a quarter, two nickels, and a penny sticking out of the crust. There are coins in the dough. This revelation ended my ability to relate to this substance as the combination of yeast, flour, and water. Instead I began to contemplate a viscous sludge of sustenance, at once symbolic and literal. The inseparable histories of bread and money share in their tendency to congeal value into a discrete form. The loaf and the coin are merely temporary stopping points in a process of endless exchange.
At the end of this entry corridor, perched at waist height atop a slender metal support, stands another mesmerizing transfiguration of the same symbol. Bread (2020), is a stunningly detailed bronze cast of a handsome sourdough loaf with a dozen or so spent matchsticks protruding from its edges. The surfaces are finished with a subtle, earthy patina that has shades of warm ochre and hazy light patches that eerily resemble a dusting of flour. Some excess dough appears to have oozed from the ends of the oblong form. This lumpy shape and muted brown palette result in a parallel resemblance to a pile of animal dung. The bronze matches sticking out from this work have a distinctive shape, thinned and slightly curved from combustion. They are cast from matches that have already burned, and this detail helps collapse the distinction between food and feces. The work is an uncanny hybrid that somehow contains all the stages of this cyclical process of ingestion. That the act of consumption and the question of nourishment figure so prominently in these sculptures implicates the living body of the viewer. This effect is accentuated by the fact that the figurative works appear to be immersed in a self-contained state of reverie, uninterested in the foods that surround them.
Psychomachia further develops a conviction that manifests throughout Goldberg’s work and writing: that consumption, whether physical or visual, is necessarily a mutual process. In a text that accompanies the show, she poses a question that haunted me during my visit and afterwards. She asks, “Is it the symbiotic relationship of the symbol to its witness that enables it to live forever?” This type of dependence presents itself in an unavoidable manner in Halo is leaking (2020). Hung at eye level on the wall, the work consists of a round mirror nearly two feet across with a rectangular napkin-like object covering most of the center of the circular face. On top of this chalky white surface with delicate wrinkles, a shimmering gold liquid seeps out from underneath a small matchbox. A handful of used matches lie glistening, covered with this metallic fluid. Several small, star-shaped stickers appear amidst this mesmerizing flow, and a pinkish glow emanates from the top of the rectangle. Despite the presence of the matches, this scene feels immense, like gazing onto the surface of a new planet. While savoring these details, I kept catching glimpses of myself in the act of looking. Depending on the angle, the surface of the mirror would also reflect other sculptures in the room. The energy of my gaze was both absorbed by the sculpture and sent back at me. I felt compelled to immerse myself in this reciprocal exchange and to temporarily allow the confrontation to consume all of me. This interval was in fact a nourishing release from the climate of fear and anxiety that pervaded the city on the day of my visit.
As I stood in front of Empty Stomach (2020), I remembered the artist’s warning to me that the piece, which contains 26 glass bowls filled partially with water, might not have been properly maintained. Due to COVID-19, the gallery closed to the public immediately after the opening. I arranged a private visit and donned a mask and gloves for the bike ride across the bridge into Manhattan to spend some time with the work. Empty Stomach embodies a gentle optimism in that it proposes that desert sand and water might someday combine and rise to become bread. For the moment, a thin plastic sheet separates the dry earth below from a pool of water in each bowl pressing down onto the sand. That boundary could be a hygienic necessity to avoid contamination, preventing the clear water from soothing the thirst of the parched earth and becoming mud. The work invites us to imagine the literal and symbolic transformations that might occur when these two materials overcome their temporary separation and begin to nourish each other.