Houldsworth Gallery, London
April 2009

Essay commissioned by Houldworth Gallery to accompany the converging ends were misaligned

author Morgan Falconer

When the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss began his studies at the Sorbonne, law and philosophy were his pursuits. Perhaps he felt that as a master rationalist tutored in both disciplines, he might command the hearts and minds of men. But one night in 1931, Lévi-Strauss went walking around the old fishing district of King's Lynn with the British crypto-zoologist Lewis Daly, and he started to think again. Daly wasn't so interested in the rational world, he was intrigued by how animals populated the imaginations of men, how they became creatures of myth. Four years later, Lévi-Strauss was on his way to Brazil, and about to begin his own investigations.

Lévi-Strauss's conclusions would be the rationalist's explanation of myth. He came to believe that the essential elements of myth were not the characters and incidents of ancient tales, but instead a series of abstract components which might be combined in many different ways. But they tended to be combined in binary systems, he concluded: that way they helped the tellers to live with mysteries and assuage fears. Indeed, Lévi-Strauss believed that the elements of myth were remarkably similar the world over, even if, ostensibly, the creatures of myth in the East and West seemed very different. Myth was complex and fantastic, but ultimately man might read it like a book.

At first glance, Rachel Goodyear would seem to be one of Lévi-Strauss' devotees. Her images don't depict landscapes or histories or moments from well-worn myths so much as a series of motifs united in implausible conjunctions: humans and tree trunks in Getting around; a skeleton and a leafless tree in Woodsman. Either of these images might offer alternatives to the English folk-myth of the Green Man. Hoodman Blind, however, is harder to penetrate: two hooded dogs flail at each other while crows perch on their heads. Both crows and dogs are rich in mythic associations, yet here their connection is hard to explain. Similarly, although rats are well-fabled creatures, their appearance in two of Goodyear's recent drawings, Wildlife and Rat Tangle, can hardly be explained by popular myths. Perhaps their source is in some forgotten phrase: certainly, many of her images of humans trying to communicate - with each other as well as with animals - evoke metaphors familiar from old sayings. Or, perhaps, like the purpose of the folktale about the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, their message has been forgotten. Sometimes, however, legend does provide a key to Goodyear's imagery. The hardened old seadogs that Daly and Lévi-Strauss might have passed in the streets of King's Lynn as they took their stroll probably didn't believe in mythological creatures, but they could have had some fearful suspicions about what lived in the deep, and Goodyear alludes to those fears in Mermaids. The women in the image are being consumed alive by catfish which are known to grow to such vast proportions in certain parts of the world that some believe they can eat children.

Rachel Goodyear's pictures are like rebuses that lie somewhere between the poles of reason and unreason. They take entirely familiar components and fuse them in unfamiliar ways. Hence the title of the show, "the converging ends were misaligned": parts that were meant to be together have missed their contacts and chaos has ensued. The Romantics and Surrealists imagined such fusions in their own day, but Goodyear envisages hers with the sharp observations and finely rendered drawings more common to the natural historian and illustrator. She takes a skill once closely associated with science, and with genteel, amateur pursuits, and puts it to work in the study of the unknown.

"The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of," Pascal once wrote. Later, Lévi-Strauss would update that line with his own declaration of defeat in the face of mystery, and it's a sentiment Rachel Goodyear would surely understand: "Language is a form of human reason," he wrote in The Savage Mind, "and has its reasons which are unknown to man."

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