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Digital Delight



Published August 23, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

Irony abounds in Steve Goodman's gloomily beautiful show at Pine Street Art Works. Trained as a painter, the South Burlington artist uses 21st-century digital technology to create images that resemble 19th-century daguerreotypes. Some are sepia-toned or gussied up with decorative flourishes, accentuating the aged or old-timey quality Goodman seeks to impart to his art. Through imaginative applications of Photoshop's properties, he also transforms sunny-sky snapshots into dark and moody scenes that suggest the influence of American painter J.M. Whistler's Nocturnes.

Goodman says he regards himself as a "traditionalist," even though the process culminating in the 20 or so works included in "Landscapes: Vermont/Italy (and New Jersey)" is as contemporary as it can be. He is using his nontraditional medium to develop a unique visual vocabulary.

The 51-year-old UVM alumnus further sees himself as a "composer assembling parts," rather than a photographer manipulating whatever his camera captures. He also doesn't think of his pieces as paintings, despite the year he spent at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Brest, France, early in his career.

And please don't refer to him as a computer artist. While acknowledging that his pieces "could only be done using the computer as a tool," he stresses, "That's all the computer is - a tool.

"It's been difficult to characterize my work because the medium is new and still evolving," Goodman continues. "Eventually, the newness of digital work will wear off and the work will have to be judged on its own."

Most of the unframed printouts hanging in the Pine Street gallery integrate abstract and representational elements. Goodman's work will thus strike viewers as simultaneously straightforward and mysterious. Which is why he puts the California painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) at the top of his list of artistic heroes. "I just love the way he's abstract and realistic at the same time," Goodman says. "That's not at all easy for a painter to do."

In the "Hopewell" series included in the show, photographs shot from his brother-in-law's home in New Jersey have been given a painterly look, with washed-over sections of the images seeming to have been produced by brushstrokes. These textured passages blur the sky and wooded landscape in ways both austere and luxuriant.

Similar, though even more radical, results are seen in his "Italian tree series." Here, what may be cypresses have been cast in purples and browns to the point where they look like mountain peaks, or simply jagged shapes on which semi-legible cursive has been scrawled.

Goodman achieves these distinctive effects by starting with photos of landscapes, buildings, his own paintings and incidental objects such as scratched sauté pans. He then goes about "building up layers" and cobbling together combinations using his keyboard and mouse. Decorative doodads such as dots and colored squares are sometimes added as well.

When he decides a work is finished - and it isn't always obvious when that point has been reached, Goodman says - the manipulated image will often have acquired a multidimensional character. And that seems anomalous, because Goodman says he likes to keep his surfaces flat. "I'm not trying to produce depth or perspective," he insists.

The final product is then printed out. Transferring one of his images from the computer screen to paper is an expensive proposition, with each print costing up to $100. But that's less than it used to be, Goodman points out, noting that the printing paper has also become "more archivally sound" - meaning that the image will remain sharp for a longer period of time.

Still, the price of production is one reason why Goodman keeps his day job. He's worked for the past 25 years as a graphic designer at Laureate Learning Systems, a Winooski firm that makes educational software for children with cognitive or developmental disabilities. A gallery in Manhattan and two in Vermont represent him, and he'll soon debut a show in Philadelphia, but none of this enables him to earn a living solely as an artist.

In keeping with his paradoxical approach, Goodman has a low opinion of computer art in general. Much of it is "amateurish," he says. "I'm not into 3-D or videos. Because I'm coming out of a painting background, I want my work to be hung on a wall - matted or framed."

At the same time, Goodman defends the aesthetic integrity of computer-generated art. Some critics "have a hurdle to get over in their perception that this technology is inherently cold. No one has that issue with movies, though."

The computer also allows him to be much more creative than does the paintbrush, he adds. "I can experiment now in ways I couldn't with painting. I'm totally unafraid to make mistakes because they can be fixed so easily. I find painting incredibly frustrating in comparison."

Another advantage offered by the computer is that it allows him to work in short bursts. That proved particularly attractive when his daughter and two sons were still children, Goodman notes. "I could spend 20 minutes at a time on a computer piece and come back to it later at no loss. With a painting, you need two to three hours of sustained attention."

He's never entirely given up on painting, however. "There's something about the texture of paint that keeps pulling me back," he explains. In fact, four small, dreamily swirling paintings are included in the Pine Street show.

Along with his choice of media, Goodman's art has evolved stylistically over the years as well. Text used to be an integral part of his computer compositions, and the words often conveyed a clear political meaning - opposition to the war in Iraq, for example. Goodman moved away from that format because, he says, "I wanted my work to be a little more universal, less tied to a particular moment."

He isn't sure where he's going next in his art. "One thing does lead to another," Goodman suggests. "You can see that when you look at the career of someone like Picasso or Matisse. But for myself, it's hard to predict. Besides, being an artist means you can do whatever you want."