Rachel Goodyear: Creatures of the Night

As she prepares for her upcoming solo exhibition at The International 3, Rachel Goodyear invites us to her studio and into a parallel reality inhabited by uncannily human animals, and animalistic humans

Feature by Sara Jaspan | 17 Jun 2013

Delicate drawings and ‘quirky’ illustrations have been somewhat fashionable these past few years, at home on the walls of cooler independent shops and bars, trying to appeal to a crowd who might position themselves as arty. Yet the drawings of Salford-based artist Rachel Goodyear stand quite apart from all this. Cocooned in a sea of white paper, they emerge from the page like briefly crystallised moments, commanding a space and attention entirely their own – and they have a knack for getting under the skin.

Discussing Goodyear’s work in Untitled magazine back in 2005, artist, writer and curator Dave Beech described the somewhat uncanny effect of her images – it is, he says, "as if the world had been tapped lightly and everything had stumbled into unfamiliar positions." This captures it perfectly. Tucked away in her studio at Islington Mill, armed with pencil and paper, Goodyear has created a world not unlike our own – populated with animals, people and nature – yet one where everything is somehow askew.

It is a kind of through-the-looking-glass realm, where delicacy extends little further than the graphite lines upon which it is built, and a sinister mood prevails. Its populace has a touch of the folkloric about it, though it is hard to know from what distant origins its characters spill. Wolves, bears, deer and birds co-exist alongside young girls, masked men, and scantily clad women; together, they engage in a narrative that seems present though uncertain, like a dream (or, more often, a nightmare). This is quite deliberate on Goodyear’s part: she prefers to leave things open, hinting at a story just enough for things to take seed within the viewer’s mind, then letting our imaginations do the rest. She describes her work as an exploration of "desire, fear, greed, envy and deceit" – yet despite such heavy themes, she resists becoming too serious, frequently exercising her power to make us laugh as well as flinch, colouring everything with a rather dark, enigmatic sense of humour.

On the run up to her latest solo exhibition, Artificial Night, at The International 3 gallery (located just behind Manchester Piccadilly train station), Goodyear gives me a sneak preview of her latest body of work. "It’s much bigger, for a start," she jokes, and this is quite true. Forming the centerpiece of the exhibition is a huge – and hugely haunting – paper triptych over which, in contrast to Goodyear’s earlier, more reticent style, a fully fledged drama is played out. The centre stage is dominated by a sort of 'dance of death' performed by masked couples to the music of a lone violinist, who watches over the proceedings from on high. Arching over the scene is some bizarre counter-plot; grizzly bears catapult docile, unresisting girls across the sky, while others stand in line, calmly waiting their turn in what Goodyear describes as a twisted "circle of life." In another surreal work, girls and bears join hands, balancing together on the branches of an accommodating tree, supplanting a swarm of angry crows, which hovers over them menacingly (Hitchcock associations abound).

Blood, claws, teeth, whips and masks all feature prominently in Goodyear’s work – however, perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the inhabitants of her paper-based world arises from a different source. She locates it neatly, describing how, while the animals are not anthropomorphised, "they are more human than most, while the people that I draw are starting to become more feral as their social boundaries begin to drop away." It is this ‘dropping away’ of behavioural limits, and the struggle for power that unfurls, that is the stuff of the very best psychological thrillers.

Goodyear studied fine art at Leeds Metropolitan University and recalls how, at the time, she experimented widely, dabbling more often in sculpture and installation than anything else. Yet she was always drawing, always conversing in a language of lines, which acted as a kind of conceptual basis for all her other work. Despite this, it wasn’t until she left art school in 2000 and returned to Manchester that these works first escaped the pages of her sketchbook and found their way on to studio and gallery walls. Islington Mill in particular set the stage for her "very first exhibiting experience", and provided a nurturing environment in which to test out new ideas and receive valuable critique and support from those around her. Now, she says, "I feel very fortunate to have witnessed [the Mill’s] development over the years into the richly diverse and inspirational place it is today." As has been the case for many of the city’s artists, the Mill has "always been a special place of inspiration" for Goodyear, and over the years her studio has become filled with an interesting array of images, postcards and artists’ books, as well as figurines, ticking clocks and other bits and bobs, including a pair of vintage rollerblades. (There is, too, the comforting smell of toasted teacakes – the remnants of breakfast.)

Goodyear highlights the importance of her move back to Manchester in connection with the changes in her practice. "I didn’t originally intend to remain here this long," she recalls, "but I very quickly stumbled into great places like The International 3, Castlefield Gallery and Islington Mill and found an art scene that I really enjoyed being a part of." She describes how those behind The International 3 in particular, directors Paulette Terry Brien and Laurence Lane, have offered her "incredible support over the years and have played a huge role in the development of my practice. They have given me invaluable guidance," she adds, and "greater confidence in the possibilities for my practice and in myself."

She also cites a number of other important factors that helped precipitate her transition towards a practice so tightly focused upon drawing: with specificity, she recalls how "a friend went to New York and brought back the catalogue from a MoMA exhibition called Drawing Now: Eight Propositions. I was leafing through and suddenly found there was this whole new world of artists that draw and who were having conversations about it." This revelation triggered a chain of other discoveries, including places like the Drawing Room in London, and an increasing awareness of the presence of drawing within contemporary art (she points to figures such as Paul Noble, whose work was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2012).

For Goodyear, drawing is "almost like a language, or a world that has started to gradually evolve." She admits that she can, at times, become lost within this world – a scary thought, given the menacing environment her drawings depict. Yet to stand safely on the viewer’s side of her paper-plain surface, gazing into the other, can be a rather threatening experience in itself as we struggle to make sense of an alternate world. Is it fantasy? Fairytale? Dreamland? Or, perhaps, the human subconscious made visible? Whatever the classification, Goodyear’s work is something to behold – and, perhaps, to lose yourself in.

Artificial Night, The International 3, 8 Fairfield Street, Manchester, 28 Jun–2 Aug, Wed-Sat 12pm-5pm