The Pet Painter
Through her paintings, artist Harriet Sobie Goldstein re-imagines human and animal relationships
By Gabrielle Alfiero
Artist Harriet Sobie Goldstein has a knack for painting dogs. She's fond of floppy ears and wrinkled, wide-eyed pugs.
She's just not sure she actually wants to own a dog.
"My mother always had parakeets," Goldstein, 70, said with a laugh. "Maybe I would get a dog. Maybe sometime in the future, but not any time soon. Dogs are a lot of work."
However, the dogs in Goldstein's paintings don't require house training and walks three times a day. Her current show, "Pets and Their People," opened on Saturday, March 8 at the Phoenix Gallery (210 Eleventh Ave. at 25th Street), an artist-run cooperative space which Goldstein considers her "home gallery." The 14 oil paintings all feature both human and animal subjects rendered with thick brushstrokes and bright colors. Usually the pet, if not the owner, gazes deliberately out from the canvas, a reflection of how Goldstein thinks animals communicate.
"If you go up to a dog, you're going to get that dog's attention," she said. "Whereas people, it depends on their personalities how they react to you."
The relationships between Goldstein's human and animal subjects are purely imagined: none of the animals are actual pets, but interpretations of animals she found in books and dropped into a scene. She doesn't know all the breeds-she's not sure if the statuesque gray dog in her piece "The Thinkers" is a Weimaraner-but her selections are deliberate. One subject, the daughter of a fellow painter, seemed reflective.
"So I put her in a wheelchair," she said about the setting of the painting, "and I gave her a helpful dog." In the piece, titled "Worlds Apart," the blonde-haired girl glances over her shoulder and looks forlorn, while what resembles a black Labrador retriever sits at attention next to her.
Though she often paints posed models, one of Goldstein's favorite pieces, "Downtown Madonna," features a woman Goldstein saw waiting for a bus on Tenth Avenue, about a block from the gallery, who she painted from memory. The woman had an infant snuggled to her chest and shopping bags slung over her shoulders. Goldstein, a New York native who grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, said she related to the city dweller.
"I wanted her to have a strong-looking dog to protect her in the city," Goldstein said about the leashed, brown bulldog she added to the scene.
Goldstein picked up drawing in first grade, and wanted to do little else. She learned she loved bright colors because she favored yellow Life Savers, and has always been adventurous with color, she said, a penchant that is evident in the bold, geometric cityscapes and lush, sunny lawns incorporated into her current work. She took art classes at James Madison High School in Brooklyn. After graduating from Hunter College with an art degree, Goldstein taught kindergarten and eventually middle school literacy in what became a 30-year career in New York City's public schools. Her interest in art remained, however; she taught other literacy teachers to infuse art into their curriculums through the United Federation of Teachers. Quick to credit her own teachers, including a sixth grade teacher who said she was talented, Goldstein still considers herself a student of art. "I've never stopped learning," she said. "People have to be lifetime learners."
Some of her earlier shows at the Phoenix Gallery have featured abstract work, and "Pets and Their People" is her return to realism. Last year's show, "Reactions to Gun Violence" was a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
"The work I showed there reflected this depression and this sadness and anger," said Goldstein, who retired from teaching about 10 years ago. "So I thought, well you know, I want something a little happy this time."
Some pieces in the current show were ongoing projects, including a portrait of a pregnant woman she started 12 years ago. The model sat nude for the portrait, but when Goldstein painted her she added a thin white dress.
"Clothes express personality," Goldstein said. "She's not just an object to me."
The finished painting, called "Pregnant Pause," a deliberate play on words, has the woman lying on a window seat with a sleeping cat next to her, itself an expression of the temperament she imagined for her human subject.
"I think that's how I felt when I added these animals," Goldstein said. "It's part of the composition and the story that each painting tells."
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