Reproductive Rites

Gambit 9/12/06

By D. Eric Bookhardt

What do people fear, and why? Or perhaps more pertinently, why do people sometimes enjoy fear, say, in the form of scary stories or horror movies? And perhaps even more to the point, what forms of fear are helpful, productive or even necessary? Clearly, it helps to know that fire burns. Folks who forget that are more likely to get burned again (and do really stupid things, like selling crack or invading Iraq). But what about all those other scary things that people have learned to love -- is it really just the rush? Or is the popular fascination with gothic topics more complicated than that, a way, perhaps, of making friends with life's inherent chaos and dark ironies?

Well, I'm no Dr. Phil, so it looks like you're on your own there. Sorry. But when it comes to dark ironies, few have explored their visual expression more inventively than Jessica Goldfinch. A New Orleans native who grew up in the legendary Marengo Street commune, Goldfinch earned masters degrees in both sculpture and sociology at UNO, and has been an Innsbruck, Austria, "Artist of the Month" among some 30-odd other venues in her life as an artist to date. Even so, this Anomalies show at Palma lives up to its name. A casual perusal reveals a veritable curiosity cabinet with contents ranging from aesthetic enigmas to the occasional cultural conundrum.

For instance, we all know that Jesus' mom was the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it's also clear that if Jesus was born to a mortal woman then she must have been pregnant at some time, yet this most widely revered mom on the planet is never depicted in the full flowering of her gravid womanhood, or big with child, as they say. It's an oversight rectified in Goldfinch's Madonna And Child sculpture of Mary in a traditional pose, but with the swollen abdomen of a woman nine months pregnant, a view that lends an aura of holiness to the biology of reproduction while imbuing the deific with a touch of earthly humanity. Pregnancy, after all, has long been situated somewhere between the awkward and the exalted in the popular imagination, and this Goldfinch Madonna simply takes all that into account.

Jessica Goldfinch's Water Bearer reflects her provocative pairing of popular culture and medical conditions as commentaries on the human condition.
More reproductive references appear as an underlying theme throughout the show. Kept Secret is a kind of ink drawing of a baby, but its fetal body language leaves it less than clear whether it's still awaiting that first defining rush of air into its lungs. In fact, it looks almost like an X-ray, perhaps a result of the unusual technique employed in its creation, a process involving the application of a flame to paper treated with lemon juice. It's a technique reminiscent of the medieval alchemical processes used in the making of a homunculus -- a "little man" or demon, which this suggests to some extent. Nearby, a Secret Heart with an elaborate arterial superstructure is similarly a product of watercolor and lemon juice enlivened with the judicious application of flame. Other innovative drawings include the darkly mysterious Shroud, featuring a pale, vaguely supernatural looking image arising from a field of inky darkness. It's actually a product of talcum powder applied to sheets of black paper, an effect reminiscent of an X-ray of the Shroud of Turin.

Goldfinch has apparently been affected by growing up in a city saturated with religious symbolism. This is especially evident in her series of little icons rendered on Shrinky Dinks, those plastic sheets that thicken, shrink and intensify in color when baked. Here St. Agatha, the patroness of Palermo, appears with her breasts on a platter (the result of a Roman torture made painless by the intercession of St. Joseph), among other images referring to some unusual scientific and medical procedures. Similar themes also appear in the sculpture, including some small bronzes featuring medical conditions as astrological symbols. For instance, Geminis is a small bronze of a pair of Siamese twins, while The Water Bearer is a bust of a hydrocephalic child. While it's not clear if either medical science or astrology will benefit from Goldfinch's attentions, she deserves credit for innovation, for marching to the beat of a very different drum, and for seeing the world in a way that really, really is ... truly unusual.