Important Art by Ralph Goings
American Salad has a peculiar, patchwork appearance; portions of the collage-like painting overlap with one another, suggesting a relationship that seems illogical or even absurd. Goings uses different approaches to visual representation to create the separate components: an airbrushed-looking, stylized face smiles radiantly in the lower right. Above it, a blurry picture of a young man with an arm outstretched is seemingly enlarged from a much smaller size and is possibly an image from a newspaper. On the upper left, the arm of the man on the right is fused to a basic, black-and-white rendering of a lower arm and hand holding and pointing a gun. Inexplicably, beneath the pointed gun is a realistically rendered, sliced tomato squeezed into the lower left quadrant of the picture with a kind of washed-out, lemon yellow and white smiling face.
The incongruous, collage-like nature of this work that combines elements of visual culture and objects from daily life is exemplary of Pop art, with which Goings experimented in the 1960s before arriving at his own photo-realistic style. In keeping with the Pop art critique of American visual culture and the oversaturation of images characteristic of the media age, the work combines aspects of the so-called American Dream - for instance, the gleaming smile and the healthy, juicy red tomato - with contrastingly dark aspects of American life such as war and gun violence. Conceptually, this piece functions in the same way as a salad does: several components that are generally unrelated to one another are intended to be consumed as a whole.
Oil on canvas
McDonald's Pickup of 1970 is a visually bottom-heavy composition. A hazy blue skyline surmounts a McDonald's restaurant that seems to be closed for business. The restaurant is surrounded by a small, paved parking lot and a single palm tree establishes the building's locale, which is likely someplace in California. The iconic yellow arches of the quintessentially American fast food restaurant are punctuated by the palm tree, beside which, rising to a towering height, is first the utility pole and next the American flag. On the dirt-and-gravel-covered lot to one side of the McDonald's sits an off-white pick-up truck. A white car parked in the lot behind the restaurant stands as a visual counterpoint to the truck. If these are the vehicles of customers, those patrons are nowhere visible in this picture.
This work, an image that resonates Americana, owes much to the Pop movement, which both paid homage to and critiqued American pop culture. However, unlike Pop, Goings' approach was to lend everyday objects importance without commenting on their significance to consumer culture, particularly not in a negative way. Rather, he tried to elevate the common, which looked a lot like his own life.
Art critic and journalist Edward Lucie Smith remarked on Goings' works, that they reflect "aspects of America that are familiar to most Americans but not usually celebrated in art." His pickup trucks and diners reflect the mobile, freewheeling quality of the American lifestyle. In the United States, if you don't like the place you are in, then there's always a highway that beckons you to go somewhere else."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Marilynn and Ivan Karp, New York, NY
Airstream features an angled view of a sleek Airstream luxury trailer, parked on a gravel lot. At least two or three more such high-end camping trailers are also parked in close proximity to the one in the foreground. The shiny metal surfaces of the trailer reflect its surroundings, although the reflections are soft and indistinct. These reflections, which change depending on the texture and terrain of a given surface, gave Goings the opportunity to create paintings that combined jaw-dropping, hyper-realistic representations of objects and to embed in them an enormous variety of abstract forms that resulted from the interplay of light, shadow, and colors on surfaces.
In the distance, snow-capped mountains line the horizon; in a somewhat nondescript middle ground, telephone poles create a dividing line between wilderness and the civilization of the comfortable trailer. The cool palette and snowy mountain range suggest the desert of the American Southwest in wintertime, rugged conditions contrasting with the protective, interior warmth of the roving home-away-from-home.
The Airstream trailer symbolizes a kind of escapism in which even the less well-to-do could indulge. Recreational camping had, by the time Goings painted this piece, become an American pastime. It provided even the working class with the possibility of leaving behind for a weekend or a summer family vacation the rigors of daily life.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Two Waitresses - Afternoon Break
The reflective chrome countertop and the sharp zigzagging of the black-and-white tiles create a dramatic diagonal that, almost arrow-like, draws attention to the two waitresses for which this piece was titled. Relaxing on the backless bar stools, the women, dressed in stark white uniforms, are either relaxing after a shift or perhaps getting ready for the day. One holds a cigarette while the other sits with a rag draped across her shoulder. Light streams in from windows that extend beyond the painted scene and illuminate the surfaces of the diner's interior.
The oft-repeated subject of American diners is rooted in Goings' personal travels and, aesthetically, in his fascination with light and the visual malleability of objects and surfaces by light. His works occasionally feature human figures as with the two waitresses in this piece. Those who do populate his figural works - most often, denizens of diners and the people who attend to their needs - are members of the American working class. For every Goings painting that hints at human connections via seemingly recently parked vehicles, homes, and camping trailers with closed doors and curtains, there are images such as this one in which the viewer is invited to enter the interiors and join their human occupants.
Goings' respect bordering on reverence of the American working class is reflected in his depiction of these two waitresses: their crisp, white uniforms allude to archetypal associations with benevolence and quiet fastidiousness. The works are less sentimental than respectful snapshots of a way of life that may not seem worthy of memorializing in painting.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Donna and Neil Weisman, New York, NY
In Shanna's Pickup, Goings represents the bed of a white work truck, against the backdrop of a wide dirt road, surrounded by farmland, under a crisp blue sky. The exposed truck bed is battered and rusty, and the lack of a tailgate reveals an array of objects: loose chains, buckets, a fuel tank and other items related to manual labor-based work. There are fresh tire tracks in the foreground of the painting, indicating that the truck might have recently been in motion and is parked only briefly.
Goings' keen attention to the light source lends this ordinary, utilitarian vehicle a kind of monumentality. The title indicates that there's an owner of this vehicle: Shanna, the wife of the artist. The truck seems to stand in as a substitute for her, the person who has just parked her vehicle, including leaving fresh tracks as evidence of her recent presence in the picture frame. The piece is, in some ways, a symbolic portrait of the invisible Shanna, just as other images by Goings are absent of people but the objects that are features of their daily lives are testaments to their existence just beyond view.
Goings' elevation of an object to a more complex status - as a portrait of a specific person and also as a symbol of the American working class - is not dissimilar to the strategy of Pop artists like Oldenburg or Warhol, who explored and critiqued American culture through the lens of mass production and consumption. The objects in the truck become attributes of the overall character of its owner but, in the case of Goings' work, such images are tributes rather than critiques.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Two Shakers Close-Up
This vertically-oriented piece features ordinary, restaurant-style, glass salt and pepper shakers unevenly aligned in front of a shiny, metal napkin holder, with a white paper napkin exposed in the front. In addition to his focus on the various effects of light on reflective surfaces and the way light penetrates transparent objects, Goings' mania for detail prompted him to describe even the granular quality of the salt and pepper inside of the glass shakers with a kind of reverence. Everything is illuminated to the minutest detail; nothing is inconsequential.
One of the most familiar subjects of photorealist painters like Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Chuck Close and, of course, Goings, was that of metal reflecting light and the abstract forms created in the process. The mechanical look of their precise work, which seemed to be the result of faithfully copied photographs (although that usually was not the case) was in alignment with the machine aesthetic of the 1960s that emerged in response to the physical and emotional sort of free-for-all of Abstract Expressionism that preceded photorealism. Metallic surfaces and particularly chrome, which still evoked the notion of modern materials, seemed to emphasize mechanical reproduction and precision. In this piece, Goings zooms in to an extreme so that the chrome of the napkin holder becomes the surface of the painting itself except the viewer is nowhere to be seen in the reflected world of everyday objects.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
As a painter of still-life imagery, Goings is part of a long tradition of artists from Chardin to Cézanne, Picasso to Wesselman, who zoomed in on the mundane aspects of life, on everyday objects, and made them seem important. His modest still-life paintings of donuts, cups of coffee, condiments, napkin holders, and the like function as intimate, masterfully painted images that evoke thoughts of quiet morning rituals, of the simple pleasures of working-class American life.
With works like this one, Goings has left behind the reflective and usually impenetrable building exteriors and has gone inside. Not only have we glimpsed the waitresses and the working class customers, but we can now get a close-up look at the objects that furnish the interiors, isolated to function almost as icons of a the humble, working-class American ethos. Repeated often as they are, such works suggest that the artist has arrived at some basic understanding of how subject matter and technique can fuse and produce the sort of effect that makes a stack of donuts or a ketchup bottle, beautifully rendered, seem somehow monumental. This modest breakfast stands in for the American morning routine itself. This image of an as-yet untouched donut and a freshly prepared cup of coffee evokes the idea of an individual having a moment of meditation as they prepare for their workday.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Ann and Donovan Moore, Brooklyn NY