By Jack Rasmussen
When artists make paintings, they are also constructing metaphors. Artists use their formal and iconographic means to create metaphors that exploit the expectations of viewers. Viewers expect to find sense or order (i.e. meaning) in a work of art, and artists expect them to look for it. Painting is, at its heart, a communicative act, and metaphor is its language.
The basic form of metaphor is analogy: A:B::C:D, or A is to B as C is to D. When viewers expect to understand a work of art and possess the relevant cultural knowledge artists assume they have, artists will be free to try out different values for the missing variables and arrive at their own interpretations.
We can test this hypothesis on a painting by Carol Brown Goldberg, Bertrand Russell Visits Bancroft Road, 2007 (opposite page). Carol began by taking a large (84” x 96”) stretched and primed canvas and covering it completely with a pure Mars Black acrylic. Next, she divided the painting surface into quadrants and covered one quadrant at a time with glue. Before the glue could dry, Carol took iridescent, highly reflective, laser-cut particles of silver, white, and copper and scattered them across the deep, black space.
What looks so free and chaotic, when understood as part of the artist’s process, becomes purposeful and meaningful. Already, even while Carol is preparing the first layers of her background and before she has introduced iconography of any sort, we find a metaphor waiting for us. Iridescence : Stars :: Black : Space. Iridescent particles are to stars as black paint is to space. Light comes from the void. Each subsequent act in her process enriches the metaphor, expanding its potential for meaning.
Carol next glues a rectangle of very thin, textured rice paper in the middle of her black and iridescent field. The rectangular shape brings structure to the void and also creates a plane in space, perhaps like the firmament dividing heaven and earth. Then, Carol takes a loaded brush and flings thin lines of white, red, copper, and bronze acrylic enamel at the painting, her gestures creating a controlled, rhythmic chaos over the other layers… a seemingly random, isotropic field.
Finally, Carol paints a grid of circles with a mixture of metallic silver and iridescent pearl, starting at the outside edges of the canvas, the circles getting progressively lighter as they move toward the center. She leaves the center open, an area slightly larger than the rectangle formed by the rice paper.
As we physically and mentally move from layer to layer, we feel the tension between order and chaos: the formal perfection of the circle against the formless space, the rectangle locking in the center of the larger rectangle, dividing the space into layers, front to infinity.
When I asked Carol where the fascination with physics and the cosmos originated, she mentioned reading her brother’s copy of The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell. The book sought to steer readers with no knowledge of mathematics or physics through Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity, gravitation, and the hydrogen bomb. This book was the beginning of Carol’s life-long affair with science, mathematics, and philosophy, making their concepts and theories the subject of, and inspiration for, her art. When questioned about her extended forays into the right side of her brain, Carol could have quoted Bertrand Russell: “Emotion that can be destroyed by a little mathematics is neither genuine nor valuable.”
I used to think it was the job of the artist to impose order on the chaos around us, but watching Carol’s work evolve over the years, I now think the artist may be discovering order in what to us only appears to be chaotic. The job of the artist would seem to require equal parts faith and science. Carol Brown Goldberg possesses both these gifts, and the sensitivity and skill to construct visual metaphors suggesting our place in a beautiful and mysterious universe.