Jack Goldstein was not an artist I was familiar with before his exhibition came to Nottingham last month; this could be due to it being his first solo exhibition in the UK, or perhaps having had more success in the late 1980s and then somewhat disappearing in the 1990s before sadly taking his life 2003. He has been somewhat off the radar of the average Joe art enthusiast like me. Nottingham Contemporary advertised Goldstein as a hugely influential figure – “the most important artist’s artist of the last 30 years” – so with claims so bold it seemed that this was not an exhibition to miss, tied in with the fact that Nottingham Contemporary has earned a reputation for dishing out flawless shows since opening. So it was with a mixture of high expectations of the gallery itself and its promising overview of Goldstein that I went in, fully expecting great things.
Californian-based yet Canadian born, Goldstein has an impressive catalogue of artistry in performance, film, painting and poetry. His artistic roots spawn from an interest in minimalist sculpture, branching out into appropriated imagery and the conceptual fields of modern art. It appears that, as can be expected of most conceptual artists, for Goldstein content presides over form, a lot of the experience must take place in the viewer’s head rather than visually. However, I am ashamed to say that there may as well have been tumble weeds rolling through my mind when I first viewed this show as it failed to ignite the mental experience expected.
Goldstein’s style was not a form of art where you could look at a pretty picture and a feeling of composure and enlightenment hit you effortlessly, it took brain power and contemplation. Contemporary displayed a varying range of his pieces, ranging from his series of 16mm films, sound-scapes, paintings, word totems, to descriptions of some of his performance pieces, which if you allowed them, gave you a serious mental work out. The films took overloaded images like a trained dog barking or the MGM roaring lion and placed them on a continuous loop out of their original context, stripping them down to a basic visual experience, although evidently never fully escaping the predetermined conceptions or ideals surrounding these images. The sound-scapes or records followed similar principles, each one referred to a single action or experience, for example the wind blowing, taking said experience out of its context to create a new meaning with the old meaning still lingering but somewhat distilled. His word totems were simply cut out phrases stuck onto sheets of paper in columns, which despite having an amateur appearance were my favourite aspect of this exhibition. The totems were probably successful because they were so much more accessible than watching a shadow fall repeatedly on a knife or listening to a boat’s engines.
Overall I found myself disappointed and frustrated, struggling to extract from his work an immediate appreciation or understanding. Goldstein believes you do not “actually have to experience something in real time and space to know it” which is simply how I felt about his work. Conceptual art is always tricky, and it requires time and reflection. The way that Goldstein has taken these images and ideas out of context is in fact what needed to be done with his work, away from the gallery and in the complete confines of your own head.