Deb Gooch: An art show that’s ‘Of Two Minds’

The energetic paintings of Deborah Gooch, an artist whose themes range from narrative figuration to pure abstraction, are currently featured in “Of Two Minds,” an exhibition at the Center for Spiritual Care that is really more of a mini-retrospective.

According to Gooch, the show’s title came about because its curators, the Center’s director Carol Ludwig and her husband Warren Obluck, couldn’t decide whether to feature her representational or abstract work, and so included examples of both.

The figural works in the show are based on photo album snapshots. Depicted in a pared-down, sketchy style, Gooch’s people, sometimes combined with naturalistic depictions of animals and flowers, are placed against indeterminate backgrounds of impulsively brushed color, casually sketched geometric shapes, and words.

“I love Larry Rivers, obviously,” says Gooch, referring to the 20th century American painter and filmmaker.

Beginning in the early 1950s, Rivers successfully merged the narrative and the non-objective in paintings that combine pop imagery with abstract expressionist brushwork.

In his 1992 autobiography “What did I Do?” Rivers wrote: “The mixture of grand art and absurdity was with me from the beginning.”

Gooch might recognize that feeling.

The oldest pictures in her show go back about eight years, when she was painting what she calls “big, robust nudes”: women in the guise of snarling burlesque queens and frenzied bacchantes, the latter caught somewhere between preparing to bolt and all-out flight.

“Life is a burlesque,” says Gooch, who also used vintage snapshots of friends and family in other paintings from that time.

“When I’m painting from photos I’m not interesting in painting someone sitting there who’s just pretty,” she says, citing the unguarded, often unlovely, moments immortalized in the snaps.

The narratives in those paintings are not easy to decipher, but the imagery will put many a visitor in mind of a dusty scrapbook full of faded relatives mugging for the camera on a long-lost summer afternoon.

A large square painting in the show depicts a woman posed behind two small boys on a swing; the word “WHAT” appears in a yellow oval, like a thought bubble, behind the group. Incongruously, a burro with a spray of irises sprouting from its back takes up the greater part of the rest of the composition.

If the story in that one is a bit obscure, a smaller painting of two little girls in denim overalls has a more direct appeal.

Limned in black, the figures are placed against a scumbled background of red and white pigment with touches of springtime green. Here and there, summarily sketched, are things that recall childhood’s innocence: a red apple, some cherries, a pink rabbit. The number “59” is collaged onto the painting’s surface at left.

In a recent talk at the center, Gooch explained that she is the taller of the children in the picture; her younger sister Carol, who died shy of her 60th birthday, is the other.

“I was known as the woman who painted funny-looking people. I have a sense of humor for a lot of things in life. I hope that came through,” Gooch says.

She reserves caricature for her depictions of homo sapiens; other animals, being free of the foibles that human flesh is heir to, are sensitively rendered.

With her husband Jim, Gooch owned and operated a horse boarding operation west of Vero for 27 years. She freely admits to being “an animal person to the extreme.” Now out of the horse business (the couple sold Winter Beach Farm two years ago) Gooch still uses her three dogs as models for her paintings, along with photographs of horses she has loved, as well as various goats and chickens.

In addition to her repertoire of domesticated animals, wildlife occasionally makes an appearance in Gooch’s oeuvre. A case in point is the crow. Several pictures in “Of Two Minds” feature it.

Crows, says Gooch, are ubiquitous in Taos, New Mexico, where, until recently, she and Jim kept a second home. For the past few years Gooch has retreated to Taos during the summer for up to six uninterrupted weeks of painting time. The crows calling to her on her daily walks with her dogs inspired her to include them in a series of increasingly abstract paintings.

For Gooch, the crow bears none of the baggage that poets and folklorists ascribe to it. In a number of her paintings, a crow is the sleek inhabitant of the abstract world that Gooch builds around it.

In the 40 x 40 inch painting “Confusion Ignored,” a crow, perched on a stump near the left edge of the canvas, turns its head from the scattered patches of color that dominate the composition. Black, blue, yellow, gray and red scraps of pigment swirl, like ash in a hot air current, from the inky licks of paint that blacken the painting’s bottom edge.

Of late the artist has allowed the abstract backgrounds of her paintings to come to the fore, while her representational subject matter has diminished in size and importance.

About two years ago Gooch turned to flowers to enliven her expressionist abstractions; several of these are in the current show. There is only one painting in “Of Two Minds” that has no recognizable subject matter in it – not so much as a long-stemmed cherry (another favorite image), a bird, or a flower petal.

To see Gooch’s pure abstractions, it is necessary to visit her new studio, which she plans to open to the public sometime in December.

Located in a storefront on 7th Avenue just north of the entrance to the Miracle Mile shopping plaza, the studio contains a large front room where Gooch intends to teach classes as well as work on her own art.

As a teacher at the Vero Beach Museum of Art for the past five years, Gooch offered classes in drawing and painting to intermediate and advanced students. Her last class there will be on Dec. 2.

“Leaving the museum is really scary. But I need to move forward, and I need to have space as an artist,” she says.

That includes being able to show her work in the storefront’s large windows, where a non-objective abstract in blue and tan (the colors of the adobe and sky in Taos, says Gooch) currently draws the attention of passers-by.

Has she entirely freed herself of imagery at this time?

“I don’t think I’ve broken away from anything. I can go back to any period at any time. I like figurative work, I like straight-on abstract, I like mixed media pieces, and I love sculpture.”

Now, with room to grow, Gooch will see where her imagination takes her.

The Center for Spiritual Care is at 1550 24th Street in Vero Beach. “Of Two Minds” is on view through Dec. 28.

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