Rachel Goodyear: Stirrings – Reviewed

Rachel Goodyear, Trance copyright the artist. Photo Michael Pollard

“The spirit of surrealism is alive and well.” Mike Pinnington on Rachel Goodyear’s Stirrings, an exquisite exhibition of drawings and animation at Salford Museum & Art Gallery… 

“I began to read the surrealists and felt an increasing sense of justification… Using an absolutely non-naturalistic formula gave me a wonderful sense of freedom.”

Angela Carter

 ”It is always difficult to describe a myth; it cannot be grasped or encompassed; it haunts the human consciousness without ever appearing before it in fixed form.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Back during the delirious heyday of surrealism, the movement’s adherents – led by André Breton – would play a collaborative game called exquisite corpse. Developed from a parlour game in which players would pass a sheet of paper between themselves, each secretly making written (or drawn) additions, before folding and passing it on to the next, the process makes for bizarre, often compelling juxtapositions. As Breton said: “[it was] designed to provide the most paradoxical confrontation possible between the elements.”

The spirit of the game and, indeed, surrealism, is alive and well if Stirrings, an exhibition of exquisite drawings, animation and the process of Manchester-based artist Rachel Goodyear, is anything to go by. The first uncanny encounter of the show is with Release, an animation in which birds stream endlessly from the opened coat of a woman. It is a signal of things to come, for this is an exhibition populated by a rich assortment of creatures, girls, and women, all of whom seem to be communing – or are at least have been put into conversation – with each other.

“In Encounter, a pair of goats are in a meaningful discussion with a woman”

Sometimes, Goodyear’s subjects appear to share an almost symbiotic understanding. In Meeting Point, a gaggle of wolves huddles beneath the skirt of a woman. She seems neither shocked nor thrilled about this apparently quotidian event. We must, in the end, conclude simply that they are her wolves, and she is their… what, exactly? A Red Riding Hood in which she is not prey, but has somehow ascended to become Akela to the pack? In Encounter, meanwhile, a pair of goats look to be having a meaningful discussion with a woman they might have bumped into while doing a bit of shopping.


Elsewhere, results are weirder still, and incline more toward the macabre. In Magpie Tangle, a mischief of ten magpies is tethered to a crouching, blind-folded woman. In the rhyme, we are told that ten is ‘a surprise you should be careful not to miss’. I’m not too sure that’s the case here. Bleaker still, Woman with Birds finds the titular figure with a halo of a bird feeder resting on her shoulders; the birds swarm and she looks down sullenly, arms folded. Squabble, part of a suite of eight drawings, finds two decapitated figures, each grasping at strands of hair, fighting over the only head. There are many examples of horrors to be found here; they’d almost be amusing, except for the deep sense of unease they produce.

“In Leonora Carrington’s short story The Debutante, a hyena plays a gruesome role”

There are questions too. What might we infer from Spectre, for example, in which a hyena sits proudly atop a desk? Roughly marking the midpoint of the show, is the animal warning us off or signalling the way? Fierce, powerful, and implacable, its ambiguity is writ large. Searching for answers, I turn to Goodyear herself, who has said that the hyena has “always maintained a presence in my mind, and most often with a tentative homage to [fellow artist] Leonora Carrington”.

In Carrington’s short story The Debutante, a hyena plays a gruesome role, taking the place (and with it the face) of the title character at her coming out ball. The world of surrealism has, of course, often intersected with the literary one, and Goodyear has seized upon the opportunity it offers to weave new and hauntingly dark mythologies of her own.

The exhibition ends as it began, with an animation. Unlike the almost celebratory tone of opening work Release, however, as its title suggests, The Hole is a darker affair, hinting – with a mixture of promise and menace – at the netherworlds conjured by this daughter of surrealism. If the hyena was the sentinel at the gates, this is the gates flung wide open. Where, we wonder, might they lead? It makes for a fitting finale to Stirrings, a dizzyingly rich exhibition that intrigues as it mystifies; always – wisely – keeping its truths tantalisingly close, just out of our grasp.

Mike Pinnington

Rachel Goodyear: Stirrings, which was co-commissioned by the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, and the University of Salford Art Collection, continues at Salford Museum & Art Gallery until 26 February

Main image: Rachel Goodyear, Trance, copyright the artist. Photo, Michael Pollard. Installation view, Stirrings, photo, Claire Corrin

Posted on 16/02/2023 by thedoublenegative