Barry Schwabsky on Genevieve Goffman

Genevieve Goffman’s “Before It All Went Wrong,” a show of half a dozen small intricate sculptures, suggested a nostalgia for some lost dreamworld. But, with their focus on setting rather than story, they left the cause of the fall uncertain. Using modeling software, Goffman concocted her deliriously artificial paradises and stately pleasure domes with heady amalgams of Baroque style, chinoiserie, and Disneyesque whimsy, peppering them with stray bits of Brutalism culled from Yugoslavian war monuments. She realized her seductive yet unsettling visions with a 3D printer, mostly in transparent tinted resin or gray nylon, the latter a thermoplastic that, to my surprise, is moldable at high temperatures and solid when cooled. The pieces were either mounted directly on the wall or displayed on clear-acrylic shelves attached to it, emphasizing the works’ pictorial nature. Their fantasy architecture was realized on a miniature scale; the largest piece, A Lady Listens to Music, 2022, was just nineteen inches high. (Goffman has used similar methods to make larger works, but not for this exhibition.)

When He Was with Her and I Was Alone, 2021, for instance, was a blue-resin edifice, or rather a three-story fragment of one, that seems like a hybrid of castle and tenement; oddly, it has a curtain on the outside as well as within. The not-exactly-human figures who inhabit it are tiny; the “he” and “her” of the title seem to appear in two places at once—a downstairs room and a roof terrace—while the “I” sits alone in a melancholy pose within a second-floor chamber. Best Party Ever, 2021, included, among other things, a trio of gamboling creatures à la Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting La danse (The Dance), but they are dwarfed by their postindustrial-cum-pastoral setting.

The outlier in this show was Monument to the Hand-Made Arts, 2022. It was the only piece made for display not on a wall but atop a pedestal. Cast in brass from a 3D-printed model, it was also the only sculpture that depicted a fairly prosaic setting—a workshop of some kind—and emphasized the figures, a group of cartoon mice. Is Goffman’s proposed “monument” intended ironically, an implicit declaration that handmade art is dead? I don’t think so. While the artist’s hand was not directly involved in the manipulation of the materials used to make these objects, their luxuriance of minute detail serves as a reminder that the techniques she has employed to create her sculptures do involve the hand: The haptic force of these works is patent, as is the rhythmic fluidity of their composition. Their ornamental opulence places them on a continuum with extravagantly imaginative objets d’art ranging from, say, deliriously patterned tramp art constructions made from discarded bits of wood all the way to Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera (Salt Cellar), 1540–43, a gold, enamel, ebony, and ivory piece of tableware, originally made for France’s King Francis I, that depicts the Roman god Neptune and goddess Tellus gazing erotically at one another, partaking in what might be some form of lovers’ discourse.

Although Goffman’s works live as objects in real three-dimensional space, her medium is digital technology, not necessarily resin or nylon. By employing a technique mostly used for producing prototypes, she hints at the place of fantasy in the making of our material environment. She loves illusion but is skeptical of it. Is this really the best party ever? Having once spoken of wanting to make an “art that scrutinizes potential futures,” Goffman seems to enjoy the scrutinizing itself more than the futures she sees on the horizon.

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