Fred Valentine: Toward Grandfather Mountain at Studio10
February 6 to March 8, 2015
56 Bogart Streeet, between Harrison Place and Grattan Street
Buskwick, (718) 852-4396
Installation shot of the exhibition under review
The subversive invitation implicit in Fred Valentine’s paintings is to think about feeling. Which is such a cry in the wilderness, because most contemporary painting does not want to be caught dead eliciting feeling, let alone thinking about it, and these baker’s dozen of paintings do both.
The invitation is subversive, because when we first walk into the little Bogart Street gallery, several rectangles that appear to be pleasant little constructivist paintings ring the room. And the temptation is to think, “here is a sincere, old-school artist still fighting the good fight, and making hard won little tasteful abstract paintings that we are supposed to admire for their indomitable hopefulness.” Well, banish that thought.
These paintings are like sweet little children that will lie to your face and pick your pocket and steal your watch when you bend down to pat their heads. They sneer at the distinction between abstract and representational, and most are more like optical illusions of abstract paintings. Their beveled wood frames replete with brass plates, are just stripes of paint with an ochre oval that often just dissolve into the middle of the painting, where atmospheric colors suddenly become solid. Untitled Abstract Picture #14, 2011-2012, has one spiraling rectangular passage where the color subtly changes from a dark walnut, to ochre, to orange, to green, to grey while seeming to stay as discrete shapes that interlock and overlap with themselves, like parodies of Frank Stella’s Polish Village series from the ‘70s.
Fred Valentine, Toward Grandfather Mountain, 2015. Oil on canvas, 66 x 44 inches. Courtesy of Studio 10, Buskwick
But we don’t begrudge these paintings their sleight of hand, because Valentine continually shows how pictorial allusions are embedded in the language of painting. These days, plenty of painters from Charlyne von Heyl to Gary Stephan, do that. Valentine’s achievement is revealing how emotion comes to occupy those allusions.
So by the time we get to Untitled, 2015 we understand how a flat grey hyperbolic shape overlapped by another black hyperbole and a black stripe can be seen as two mountains and a tree at dusk. The addition of the shaded brown stripes that surround the central image like a trompe l’oeil frame, only reinforce our desire to turn this geometric abstraction into a memory of night at a mountain retreat. The memory triggers feeling, and though you are constantly reminded of the reflexive nature of the painting, you understand how the feeling arises.
The exhibition is eponymously titled Toward Grandfather Mountain after the final five and a half foot high oil on canvas (the paintings in the show are mostly oil on wood panel) on a small wall facing away from the entrance that we discover at the end of the show. Like most of the others, it too, has the brown trompe l’oeil painted frame. But its image of a mountain seen through two giant boulders emerging out of a lake in moonlight has a slightly different character. The forms are not flat, the boulders have a massive solidity, the sky is cloudy, there is a round object that could only be a moon, and the water seems to glint in the moonlight.
What is different about this painting is that its light and mass is almost entirely achieved through moments of reflection on a surface, crusty and bumpy from built up paint, which varies subtly in its matte quality and darkness, almost as deep as a Reinhart painting. Towards Grandfather Mountain. Is this what all the paintings have been building to? Or is it just a metaphor for the inevitability of old age? The sarcasm that lurks behind Valentine’s work, both allows for the obvious, and ridicules it at the same time, aimed not only at us, but at himself as well.
Last week I met Fred Valentine at Sometimes (the gallery is only open on Wednesdays, Fridays and by appointment) where he has an exhibition of remarkably inventive and sophisticated new work. A painter for more than forty years, Valentine isn't interested in the ongoing debate about painting-as-object or painting strategies in the post-mortem (painting supposedly being dead) era. Instead, he conjures images from his imagination.
Fred Valentine, Curior than I, 2013.
A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Valentine has roots in the 1970s Chicago Imagist scene that included Jim Nutt and Roger Brown, swaggeringly shameless picture painters who famously embraced human flaws and misadventure when the rest of the artworld had turned toward a more austere Minimalist sensibility. In his new work, Valentine paints figures, landscapes, and abstracts with gusto, exploring memory, trauma, and existential angst while employing outrageous humor and image quotation to skirt his own admitted sentimentality.
For Valentine, every painting has distinct personal and social components. In Grieving Father, for instance, he seems to deprecate both his own alarm over malevolence and mortality and the inability of contemporary painters to address the larger issues facing humanity. Yet he still feels compelled to record his emotional life, though with a kind of wry modesty, perhaps because he understands that paintings are no longer necessary to convey horrors or record significant experiences.
Distressed by images of fathers holding their injured children in news reports about Middle East bombings, Valentine had several of his artist friends pose for the "Grieving Father" paintings. In the painting on display, Valentine cloaks his emotional response to the news reports in an exaggerated, cartoonish surrealism, a strategy that raises interesting questions about the uncomfortable position emotion holds in contemporary painting. (Image above: Fred Valentine, Grieving Father)
Despite Valentine's emphasis on image, the surfaces are lumpy and tactile. In contrast to so much work being produced today, Valentine often spends years on a painting before it leaves the studio. (Image above: Fred Valentine, Lifesize)
A master quoter, Valentine sometimes includes the illusion of a frame as part of the image. He isn't painting aRomantic landscape, he's painting an image of a Romantic landscape. The one pictured above is based on a memory of a place he remembers visiting as a kid. (Image above: Fred Valentine, Memory Painting)
In the side gallery, don't miss the small abstractions. Amused by the recent craze for bad abstraction, Valentine has gleefully made a series that depicts "mindless" abstract paintings. Naturally, Valentine's attempts at mindlessness are impressively thought-provoking. (Image above: Fred Valentine, Untitled abstract picture)
This superb show is small, but the content is meaty and quietly impassioned, offering penetrating ideas and perspectives, particularly about the diminished role that emotion and sentimentality play in contemporary painting. Thanks, Fred.