Lester Goldman

In the mid-1980's Lester Goldman conceived the The Latest Blow to Mirth: a ten year effort to be played out in three phases of "carnival-like, walkthrough events" including large-scale paintings and sculptures, texts and diagrams, animated loop devices, music and performance.

The project's first and second phases- 55 Gallons of Blue Laughter (1989) and Kabalival (1993) - were hosted in Kansas City by the Leedy-Voulkos Contemporary Art Center. The third and final phase, Womb Shot (1996), is performed and exhibited at Grand Arts.

The relationship between the content of each of the exhibitions' opening night performances and the individual art works is open-ended. No component is a literal translation of any component. Each installation is rather a sea of ideas and images linked by the net of Goldman's wide-ranging intellect and imagination.

A native of Philadelphia, and an MFA graduate of Indiana University, Lester Goldman moved to Kansas City in 1996 to become Professor of Painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. For the first decade of his professional career, he developed as an accomplished realist painter. In the 70's his focus shifted the field of abstract color kinetics, and by the early-80's he had evolved into a kind of artist for which no adequate label yet exists, but whose role in the creation of collaborative, multimedia installation /performances are perhaps best described as Chaplinesque circus master.

Goldman creates bodies of work that themselves become forums for public discussion and debate of critical, contemporary issues. His interest in this all-incompassing format stems from his awareness of museums and galleries' tendency to decontextualize art by isolating it from the human activity that initially inspired it. He views collaborative performance as an opportunity to reintroduce context through a process that allows artists with diverse perspectives to work off one another in patterns of spiraling intensity, building collective meaning that magnifies as the exhibition's opening approaches.

He views The Latest Blow to Mirth as a real-world, real time collage comprised of a broad range of art forms and materials, as well as fragments of contemporary thought and human activity. It is a form of Grand Guignol intended to startle its viewers as participants in life's often macabre drama.

55 Gallons of Blue Laughter, the first phase of Goldman's ten year cycle, related fragments of episodes from the lives of characters the artist developed as palindromic alter-egos: Otto and Lil. Their names and identities occasionally merge to form Lilottto, suggesting, of course, lotto, the lottery, a game of chance.

The images associated with 55 Gallons of Blue Laughter - paintings, sculptures, and the story Liotto presented by Goldman in a coloring book form - allude to intrechangability of body parts and mechanical parts. Life is a game of musical chairs. Individual identity is conditioned by our immediate environment. In the end, Goldman seems to suggest, it is a wonder we have any sense of self at all. Critical to an understanding of Goldman's work is the fact that he chooses to focus on the wonder in this paradox. Though Goldman is in all other ways a direct descendent of the Dadaists, his commentary can never be categorized as nihilistic.

Otto Immersion exemplifies his even handed portrayal of the horrifying and the hopeful. Otto's head is a line drawing, his tongue and a phallus, his arms are tubes filled with disconnected vertebrae. His torso and pelvis are a rock cairn, and an unattached length of intestine floats to the left of his head. His defense mechanism a shower head with testicles? vigorously sprays what looks to be a perfectly harmless effusion. Yet despite his apparent foolishness, and the utter incompatibility of his parts, Otto appears somehow magnificent. He is, above all, emphatically alive.

That he again intends to romp with playful vengeance through dead serious issues is clear in the title of the second phase of Goldman's theater of the absurd: Kabalival marries the word "cabala" - a strain of medieval Jewish occult philosophy - to the word "carnival"- a festive occasion which historically precedes an extended period of repentance.

In the spirit of a carnival's multiple arenas, the opening for the Kabalival exhibition included two performances, War Room and Plaguing Idiots.

The focus of War Room was a carousel spinning to a calliope tune in a glass-enclosed space, but instead of the anticipated wooden ponies or unicorns, this carousel was a rotation of sheet-metal silhouettes of "body bags." The room's only light emanated from a television screen, which dutifully "reported," via a video camera, the spinning of the grisly carousel. Two black-garbed women, sisters in reality, danced as though dancing was all that had been left for them to do. Goldman regarded this performance as " a zone of inquiry relative to the 20th century phenomenon of the televised [Persian Gulf] war."

In the painting Four Daughters Dreaming, Four Bells Being, Goldman invested a perfectly balanced arrangement of female forms with the contradictory qualities of hope, loss, innocence, and ennui. These "daughters" are ripely fecund, yet dormant; they are "bells" that can only "be." They could wake and ring peal the truth of the absurdity and horror of war but their sound would be of no consequence to the men - fathers, husbands, brothers, sons - who can hear, but can't understand.

Plaguing Idiots marked Goldman's first collaboration with writer, director, and performance artist Lisa Cordes. This drama bridged between anxities surrounding the Plague in the Middle Ages and those surrounding AIDS today. It took the form of a morality play and was performed in the rowdy custom of commedia dell'arte.

The opening for the current exhibition features two original short plays, Corkscrew and Womb Shot, written by Goldman's niece, Barbara B. Goldman, and directed and performed by Lisa Cordes.

"Corkscrew" is puppet theater, and like Plauging Idiots, it takes the rhetorical tone of a morality play. Barbara Goldman describes the corkscrew as "a device which turns back on itself, ultimately becoming a retrograde, cyclical action. Each character [St. Francis, Woman, Baby, Stigmata] is caught in the web of its own limited vision, crippled aspirationsm dream fragments."

Goldman painted the St. Francis puppet bright blue, a nonracial color, a color associated in the Hindu religion with holiness. The Woman is a caricature of desirablity - teased black hair, lush red lips, heavily made-up eyes. The Baby is a tangle wiggly limbs, always hanging upside down, not yet conscious or self conscious about proper posture and appropriate alignment relative to other creatures. The Stigmata is a voice from offstage, signified in the puppet drama by a fragment of a red automobile reflector that lights up when the voice speaks.

The live drama Womb Shot has three charaters: the Speaker, the Girl-MAma-Grandma, and the Soldier-Medic. The Girl , once dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going to the moon, winds up pregnant after a brief encounter with the indifferent Soldier. Desperate and completely isolated, she buys a gun, shoves the barrel into her vagina, and pulls the trigger.

Goldman offers a brief insight into the way the collaborative process works: "I introduced Barbara's play, which she based on a newspaper article, to Lisa, who immediately envisioned a costume for the Girl based on her daughter Emma's habit of drawing her hands up into her sleeves, as though she is helpless or in a straight jacket. Lisa's image triggered in me an image of my daughter Amanda whose long, loose-limbed quality then began to invade the paintings and sculpture...."

Through the forms in Goldman's paintings for the Womb Shot series are are still highly abstracted, his line work has a new aspect of delicacy and his color choices are sublime. Perhaps because the issuesare so deeply personal returning to the intimate scale of family and friends Goldman reintroduces the elegance and polish that once graced his realist works.

In Soldier Boy, Goldman suspends the elongated, headless and seemingly boneless form of a young female, with a snake-like blood trail between her legs, from a "headboard" painting which protrays an array of the performance's iconography. On the right side, the coy figure of the soldier lies in comfortable, folded repose. The boy has curly blond hair and, as Goldman describes it, "a shit eating grin." Like a puppy with a bone between his paws, he clutches a toy gun.

An Act of Levitation Gone Awry is furiously dense with the stories' iconography, yet the overall impact is one of pure harmonics. This is a moment of reverberation in the aftermath of unspeakable disaster. Reality has exploded out of its recognizable form, and its parts the baby, the girl-woman departing, the pope contemplating a necklace of breasts, a floating vaginal form invaded by evil all have assumed dream identities.

The painting Womb Shot records another instance of reverberation: the moment when the gun is fired. "This whole painting is based on my work off of yellow. I thought about the flash of light you would experience being shot," explains Goldman. "I wanted yellow to vibrate and just create light. All these associations were accumulating in the meantime, but I was only working to keep the vibrancy of the yellow going." At the end of a short, miserable life, the death flash is a light of salvation, the peace of radiant pink and yellow, and even the gun's smoke trail is a warm guttering of gray, invading the light like an incoming tide.

Goldman's lavish use of primary color charges his work with a sense of urgent reality. Despite the apparent chaos, we know we can trust what we see, and that the work's information, once decoded is very basic. The primary colors tell us we are not being tricked this chaos is real and hard won; it is not contrived by the artist to toy with his audience.

If we do not indeed possess a collective consciousness and if that collective consciousness contains profound truths and deep knowledge of essential and primordial human awareness, then, Goldman's work argues, it must also contain fierce shards of evil, humiliating memories, obsessive trash, road signs, dirty words in baby talk, song lyric fragments, chips of sing-song from children's rhymes, the shape of Hitler's hat, and the seemingly useless knowledge that Buddha had a club foot. When Lester Goldman abandoned the solitude of realism and abstract impressionism, it was largely due to his distrust of "false heroics" they ascribed to the artists role. He had learned the value of collective experience from his family and from teaching. As an artist today, he remains adamantly indifferent to priorities claimed by convention to exist, but he revels nevermore in the process of uncovering communal awareness.

Roberta Lord
February 1996
Kansas City, MO


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