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Ralph Goings

by Virginia Anne Bonito, Ph.D.

Born of modest means in 1928, in northern California at the onset of the Great Depression, Ralph Goings early on developed an empathy for small-town and suburban vignettes that would later form the foundation of his exceptional corpus of paintings. When Goings graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1953, Abstract Expressionism was in its heyday. Its influence was pervasive and for a while Goings was an ardent disciple. But by the early ’60s, his enthusiasm for self-expression through abstraction had reached an impasse. His discovery of photographs and photography as a potential source of subject matter offered a wellspring: “But the photographs! To take something that is in itself a representation of something else, and then to translate it into another medium, seemed much more challenging. And I knew all the cliché attitudes about painting from photographs – that it was cheating, that it was a bad thing to do. . . . And that sort of added to the sweetness of it.” (Linda Chase, Ralph Goings [New York: Abrams, 1988], p.19.) Beginning with magazine illustrations, and later his own slides and snapshots, photography provided a new focus for his talents, artistic vision, and versatility. This ever so important instrument of the Photorealists awakened in Goings a latent sympathy for recording and, more importantly, for magnifying the ordinary scenes that comprise the fabric of our daily experience.

Pop Art too had a positive impact on Goings as he experimented with realism in the ’60s; aware of the appropriation of images from advertising, comics, and newspapers, it validated his own burgeoning interest in mass-media imagery and American material culture. In the resurgence of realism in the later ’60s, Pop Art functioned to reinforce the viability of genre as subject matter for figural artists. Commodities had always been the stuff of still-life painting. However, by the mid 20th century, the aspect of these products had been thoroughly transformed through packaging and brand name wrappers. The genius in Pop Art was the veiled irony that drew attention to this process of the commercialization of nature’s bounty. Pop Art also called into service some of the identical techniques used in the production of package labels, such as silk-screening. Furthermore, it was the antithesis of Abstract Expressionist painting, firmly rejecting personal subjectivity, and, in some cases, even the stroke of the artist’s hand.

Not only still life painting, but the traditional subject matter of genre painting in general was being transformed by Goings and other of the Photorealists. For example, domestic interiors were converted into the countertops and chrome surfaces of local luncheonettes. Likewise, traditional landscape imagery gave way to parking lots, diners, and storefronts. These were democratic images for a democratic age. The set of values associated with these images – those keyed to humanity’s “comfort zones” and the evocation of social pleasantries; bounty within arms’ reach; and middle-class stability – ignited a remarkable response to them. Goings, however, along with the other Photorealists, rejected the anonymity of Pop’s notational style. He was especially determined to address realism on a high technical level and, following in painterly traditions, began the crafting of exquisitely composed and sparkling images through masterful brushwork and plays of color.

In 1967-68, Goings concentrated on a series of paintings of female figures called “California Girls.” But by 1969, the opportunity to participate in a show called “Views of Sacramento” exposed his true affinity for the mundane. Goings found himself shooting slides of myriad trucks in a local parking lot. From this unusual material, he began a series of truck paintings that stimulated his exploration not only of the vernacular but of worn surfaces as the matrix for the ‘cameo’ appearances of abstract passages – a trait that marks his personal style. At times, the cropped glass-and-metal surfaces of the commercial buildings behind the trucks provided a similar condition for the development of other sorts of abstractions, for example, rectilinear ones. The “pickup” series enabled Goings to refine and to perfect his painting technique in both watercolor and oil.

In 1974, Goings moved from California to upper New York State. With this sharp change of environment, the artist slowly turned his attention from sun-bathed California suburban streets to stores, fast-food joints, diners, and coffee shops – venturing from parking lots into interiors. In these new works, Goings reverently scrutinized the commonplace of the “bas cuisine.” He revelled in presentations of repeated geometries (given by booths, barstools, tiles, pressed aluminum, and lighting fixtures); in textures (such as shiny ceramic tiles and tableware): and in patterns of light (especially the complex reflections offered by polished metal, glass, and tile surfaces).

Since the 1970s, Goings has had the uncanny ability to zoom in on the unexpected still-life subjects that are often hidden in the visual clutter of diners and delis. He began producing striking, simplified paintings of groupings of familiar ketchup bottles, napkin holders, salt and pepper shakers, etc., often presented in the exploded scale favored by Pop Artists and the Super Realists. Relish (1994), from the Seavest Collection, is one of the more recent members of this remarkable class of still-life series. In Relish, Goings transforms otherwise stodgy containers into classic compositions of crystalline architectonic elements that vie with the magic realism of Morandi. The polished surfaces, viewed against a neutral background, gleam; painterly radiance belies a life of indifference and abuse. Goings’s carefully scrutinized hyper-real textures and reflections that carry myriad richly orchestrated abstractions produce luxurious pictorial, as well as sensory, illusions. They are a measure of the success by which he merged his skills as a Photorealist with his early fascination with abstraction, and affirm his place in the long line of still-life artists, from Sanchez Cotan to Chardin and Cezanne, who created memorable paintings from otherwise humble objects, momentarily spotlighting them on the “stage” of a table.

copyright by Virginia Anne Bonito, Ph.D., Goings essay, Get Real, Contemporary Realism from the Seavest Colledtion [Duke University Museum of Art, 1998], revised April 30, 2000 for the Seavest Collection Webpages. Permission to use this text granted by the author.

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All works shown on this site are in private collections or collection of the artist.