After earning an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2007, Brett Goodroad was looking for work. Having transported grain in bulk as an adolescent, he turned to trucking, and soon fell in with Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce distributor that has been a San Francisco staple since the 1970s. Goodroad recently relocated to Arizona after spending well over a decade transporting vegetables for the company in California and the Southwest. We can imagine visions of the transient landscape rushing through the windshield and rearview mirrors, the weather—variable sunlight, moonlight, rain, and Bay Area fog—modulating the terrain, regularly revising the passing landscape’s palette, contrast, and sharpness. Goodroad seems to fold this experience of long drives into his slow paintings. As he reflected in 2017, “painting, like the road, is a series of compositional and emotional queues [sic] shifting and changing.”
In 2021 writer and public intellectual Hilton Als covered Goodroad’s solo show at the San Francisco gallery Cushion Works for the New Yorker. Taken with Goodroad’s work, Als curated this first New York solo exhibition for the artist, at Greene Naftali. It features 15 unabashedly painterly—encrusted, scumbled, atmospheric, gorgeous—oil paintings. Conjuring craggy coastlines, patchy farmland, pooling water, and green-brown wilds punctuated by the occasional sunset, Goodroad’s frequently murky pictures hover between landscape and abstraction; linger a moment, and they dissolve into tracts of color, patches of texture, fields of forms, evocations of feelings. Untitled (lips part), 2022, for example, depicts reclining lovers as they embrace in quasi-abstract yellow forms that could equally be stretches of sand, over a strip of blue strokes. The image feels unmoored: representation becomes abstraction, figure becomes landscape, earth becomes water. All the canvases on view capture the beauty of shifting—the flux of our environments, our perspectives, our memories, ourselves. We are never quite sure what we see, and the knee-jerk impulse to seek certainty seems beside the point.
Even when a title seems to name Goodroad’s subject, this sense of perpetual unfolding persists. Approaching the assertive scale of history paintings, two works titled At the Depot appear to commemorate Goodroad’s regular visits to storehouses. In the earlier At the Depot (2021–22), measuring roughly 6 by 5 feet, a cartoonish, faceless figure beside a red block—a tractor, perhaps—extends a gloved hand toward blue and green mounds; the sky is a medley of blue, brown, and sunflower yellow strokes, while russet clumps along the bottom edge of the frame sprout greenery. Executed in a kindred palette, the later At the Depot (2022) interprets the same event in a nonrepresentational manner: abutting a rectangular expanse of yellow and blue, a stippled navy cascade cuts through scratched brown passages situated among a wet walnut splotch, a green crescent, and a zone of red exactingly detailed with black tildes.
These larger paintings are interspersed with intimately scaled pieces such as an untitled work from 2022, featuring a patchwork of sgraffito and scumble in predominantly earthen hues (greens, yellows, browns), and Untitled (After Dael), 2021–22, a portrayal of what appears to be a deciduous tree in rural surroundings. Rendered gesturally in a damp green-brown palette, the latter scene is difficult to discern, a quality heightened by Goodroad’s decision to paint on copper panel, a support popular in Italy and the Netherlands in the early 17th century, to a flickering effect. Describing himself as an “intuition-absorbed practitioner,” Goodroad often experiments with materials: While the majority of the works here are painted on linen or canvas, a number were executed on copper, silk, and even flannel, a trucker staple that pills under layers of pigment. The designation Untitled (After Dael) may nod to Flemish old master Jan Frans van Dael, but in visual terms, John Constable’s Romantic oil sketches of the English countryside, Barbizon School painter Jules Dupré’s moody renderings of the Normandy coast, and Hudson River School painter George Inness’s Tonalist woodlands seem the more obvious influences. Goodroad yokes landscape’s grand aesthetic traditions (a Romantic stroke, a Dutch Golden Age palette) to his personal experience of his environment, which is inextricably linked to his position as a produce truck driver.
References to the Western history of landscape painting are not purely visual but also political; the genre has long been tied to imperialist, capitalist, and nationalist projects, as W.J.T. Mitchell and other scholars have outlined. In the United States, landscape painting emerged in dialogue with Manifest Destiny, as expansionists readily co-opted the Hudson River School painters’ omniscient, panoramic views of sublime landscapes. (Some artists, like Inness and Albert Bierstadt, who was also an avid land speculator, were even employed by transcontinental railroad surveyors to participate in expeditions westward.) Goodroad eschews such magisterial visions, which imply that the job of representation is to depict the land as clear, knowable, and mappable, that painting is an act of possession. Contrary to and countering those settled or sure historical images, Goodroad’s pictures of the American West fog and flicker, congeal and dissolve, advance and retreat. They resist a sense of ready access, or easy comprehension, suggesting that the landscape painter’s task may be instead to unsteady the viewer’s footing.