Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Encircling Darkness: Fred Valentine’s Intimate Portraits

Fred Valentine, “The Pumpkin Festival” (1991), charcoal on paper, 50 x 44 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
It’s an unsentimental portrait, to say the least. The unsmiling girl stares straight at you, the mutant-looking rag doll under her right arm shrouded in shadow. Only after you break the grip of her gaze do you notice the streaks and abrasions marring the drawing’s surface and the landscape that’s mysteriously etched onto her left shoulder.
So it goes in The Pumpkin Festival and other PortraitsFred Valentine’s current show at Schema Projects in Bushwick, whose unassuming title seems determined to pull the rug out from under you.
The exhibition is composed entirely of drawings from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which the artist made by laying down a solid ground of dense, black charcoal and then roughing out his forms with an eraser.
The title drawing, “The Pumpkin Festival” (1991), is the one with the girl — the artist’s daughter — clutching a rag doll. Like most of the other works in the show, she emerges out of the black field with the softness of a form incrementally revealed in the dim light of a darkened room.

Fred Valentine, “Modiano” (1990), charcoal on paper, 50 x 44 inches (click to enlarge)
The streaks and abrasions, like scratches on movie film, play with your sense of what is on, above, or behind the picture plane — the image and the material never quite settling into an easy d├ętente. The girl is embraced by the encircling darkness, her lower body slipping deeply into its shadows; at the same time, the surface erosion unites her face and upper torso with the composition’s abstracted elements, such as the erased smudge that pops out, like a lens flare, near the top right corner.
The landscape of wintry trees bedecking her blouse appears to be neither an image projected on her clothing nor a scene glimpsed through a magically transparent body. Rather, it feels as if her shoulder is becoming the landscape, her body sinking into the earth surrounding her. The opening montage of Lars von Trier’sMelancholia (2011) comes to mind. In the lower right, the girl’s left hand is rendered fingerless, like a mitten, as if she were a rag doll herself. There is no indication, anywhere, of a pumpkin festival.
“The Pumpkin Festival” is eerily quiet and profoundly disquieting. If it raises an unanswerable question about the trees on the girl’s shoulder, it’s a riddle that’s compounded by similar landscapes appearing at regular intervals on the left shoulder of other characters included in Valentine’s portrait gallery.
The recurrence of this motif takes on a musical intensity, deepening in emotional resonance, like a muted drumbeat, as it travels from “PH” (1990) to “KG” (1992) to “Modiano” (1990), subjects differing in age, gender and race. But each recurrence does nothing to divulge its meaning, if meaning is defined as literal or logical sense.
Words are the enemy here; with their superimposed elements (in addition to the landscapes, there are multiple eyes, nostrils and mouths) and their greater or lesser degrees of physical defacement (from splits and cuts to children’s drawings in felt-tip marker), the portraits brim with a powerful aphasic eloquence, a silent articulation grounded in the tension between material and image.

Fred Valentine, “KG” (1992), charcoal on paper, 50 x 44 inches
In some of the works, including the searing “KG,” the surface is sliced away and another sheet of paper containing a face — or, in one instance, text (the diamond-shaped “SP,” 1994) — is pasted into the empty space beneath. The inserted portion doesn’t jibe in scale or tone with what’s left of the original portrait. Straddling classicism and collage, this pictorial fragmentation, fused as it is with the paper’s fragmentation, turns the work into a collision of Cubism, Surrealism, and Chicago Imagism, but with a humanity that undercuts the cerebration and irony permeating those styles.
It’s hard to believe that the works in The Pumpkin Festival and other Portraits were made 25 years ago. Aside from the blackened fissures erupting across some of the surfaces, which look as ancient as the moon, the drawings come across as fresh from the studio, with an urgency that consolidates current strains of thought on content and intentionality, materials and medium.

Fred Valentine, “SP” (1994), charcoal on paper, 16 x 15 inches (click to enlarge)
Valentine approaches drawing with the sensuousness and scale that is customarily applied to painting, yet makes sport of the fragility of the paper. His surface lacerations and disruptions unsettle the image to a starkly expressionistic effect without once engaging the stylistic tropes of expressionism (the slashing gesture, the exaggerated mark).
Despite the improvisational feel of each work, the motifs stringing the portraits together (the landscapes, the vertical streaks, the lens flares in the upper right, the sliced-up surfaces, the children’s drawings, the diamond-shaped formats) evince an overarching sense of purpose, of creating a cohesive emotional and material density that pushes the imagery into a wider experiential arena.
As common elements reappear, now here, now there, across the scarred surfaces, Valentine’s subjects nevertheless retain their individual secrets: the rows of large, stenciled numbers across the front of “SC” (1990); the words “culpo culpa” (“I blame blame” in Latin) scratched like graffiti near the neckline of “KG”; the source of the upside-down text pasted in the hole carved out of “SP.”

Fred Valentine, “SC” (1990), charcoal on paper, 49.5 x 44 inches
The frontal poses and black-and-white imagery recall bygone photo albums, damaged and streaked with age. Despite the wounds inflicted on the surface, there is a protectiveness about these portraits, an immersion within a self-contained, perfectly realized realm, where their isolation only increases their intimacy.
Revealed at a 25-year distance, Valentine’s monumentally rendered images of family and friends are as much artifacts as artworks, perceptions embedded in carbon dust and shielded against time’s slow fade.
Fred Valentine: The Pumpkin Festival and other Portraits continues at Schema Projects (92 St Nicholas Ave, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through February 28.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Chiaroscuro is a dreamscape that pulls us in and holds us there. A little light penetrates giving us a clue, but still some anxiety remains as we scramble to piece the thing together. That ray of light is like a thought that travels slowly and unblinkingly and like a magic wand, reveals or conceals. In the portrait drawings of Fred Valentine, that ray is an eraser that extracts facts and feelings from a velvety dark ground and it’s wondering path illuminates psychically charged spaces. Forms appear or might move left or right in a moment with random pentimento or full out original demarcation left in its wake and become charged as they call up an eye, a mouth or a gesture in his subjects. These drawings set things down but also hesitate, as if to run the audio needle over a record a little backward and forward, to pause and recall and to let things settle. As they find their groove, these powerful drawings, hung here as if to recall a classical figure hall, memorialize the quiet existence of everyday people in a soft dust filled breath.

 Fred Valentine on these works: “The subjects in these drawings are real people that range from my daughter and other relatives to friends and people that I’ve worked with. There are also those with mild to severe forms of developmental and or psychiatric impairments. These people I knew while working as part of a clinical team at sheltered facilities and day treatment centers. I won’t tell you who is who as knowing that can often diminish a view of their strength and humanity. I want them to be anonymous. What you see is what you know. They all have their stories and history of course. Some sweet and tender others damaged and horrific. These are people that I’ve known and cared about to one degree or another. They were all made in the early 1990s. They sat with me and we talked. I first tried making a few quick sketches and jotting down some notes but soon realized that that made them uneasy and on guard. So with a very long cable release attached to my camera I would take a few random photos here and there as we were talking. I worked directly from the photos but I didn’t project them. With these particular drawings I began by taping the paper to the wall and then covering the entire surface with a few layers of charcoal. Then through a process of erasing and adding, scratching and scraping the figure slowly comes into existence. It is a kind of excavation. I get to know them very well. I looked in they looked out, creating the emotional intimacy that I wanted.”
 Schema Projects is proud to present “The Pumpkin Festival and other portraits”, charcoal drawings on paper. The show will open Jan 22 and run through February 28th, 2016, Saturday & Sunday 1- 6pm. Opening reception Friday, Jan 22 6-9pm. For more information please contact, Mary Judge 718 578 3281.

Friday, March 27, 2015


A Cry in the Wilderness: Fred Valentine at Studio 10

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
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
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.

July 7, 2013

Fred Valentine: "I make pictures"

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.

"Fred Valentine," Sometimes (works of art), Lower East Side, New York, NY. Extended through July 19, 2013. Open Wednesdays, Fridays and by appointment. The gallery doesn't have a website, so for more info, call (212) 431-2652 or (646) 714-7470. Email:

Related posts:
Valentine hearts painting (2012)
Talking about his art: Fred Valentine (2011)
Peter Scott's two-part disappearance and James Siena's Sometimes (2012)

Friday, April 11, 2014


"Abstract Picture #22" oil on canvas  9" x 12"  2013

"MM" oil on canvas 48" x  72"  2013

"Memory Painting" oil on canvas 32" x  42"  2013

"Decoy" oil on panel 11" x  14"  2011

"Curior than I" oil on canvas 48" x 72"  2013