[Editor’s Note: What follows is the first column in a special-for-Combustus series by painter and art professor, Michael Pearce, Ph.D]
et’s be frank, when you look at Dino Valls’ body of work you might get a first impression that he’s a touch too much into a certain girl between childhood and womanhood, that disturbing age that turns fathers of teenaged girls into over-protective shotgun-wielding monsters.
The naked girl he repeatedly paints is old enough to be sexually active, but she’s simultaneously virginal and vulnerable, young enough to be a child. Red lids frame her blue eyes, as if she has wept herself to silence; her lips often appear to be bruised, as if she has a young lover whose kisses have been too forceful. Labels stuck to the skin of her breast compare her nipple to a wasp, implying the sting. Her body is alternately covered and revealed by cloth, intimate. In some of the paintings she’s disturbingly tied or wrapped, even suspended; in one instance, Sigilla, she’s bound with cords sealed with wax like a medieval letter. Disembodied hands, men’s hands, manipulate her naked body.
But making a quick dismissal of Valls’ work because it seems a bit kinky and a little disturbing would be to wildly underestimate these paintings, which are much, much, deeper than superficial erotica.
Valls shows the girl as the subject of examination by an outside force: she’s poked and pierced by pins, measured with dividers, dismantled from her self and compartmented into display cases as if a half-buried mannequin gazing directly out at us.
The paintings imply that someone is very focused on taking apart this poor girl, making a reductive examination of every part of her. She’s presented as a wonder of the cabinet. She is carefully and sadistically labeled, categorized and displayed. But the intensity of the examination has had its effect on her, leaving piercings on her face, the Latin word vultus cut into her skin, her red eyes emptied of her tears, a metal bar piercing her head.
The sophistication of the paintings makes it perfectly obvious that Valls is a profoundly intelligent, well-read fellow.
This is the first time that looking at the work of a contemporary painter has made me reach for my Latin dictionary, because the paintings are so interesting that I want to decode every clue, to understand the narrative of the girl.
The closer you look, the more detail you find; a single loose hair here, a discrete label there; layers of indications, both direct and subtle, that there is something hidden here, something worth learning.
Of course the girl isn’t really a girl: Valls tells us so quite directly in Pictura, which is labeled with a clear statement in Latin: Haec non est effigies (this is not a portrait). This direct statement is nothing like Magritte’s famous Ceci n’est pas un Pipe (this is not a pipe). It’s not a question of authenticity but rather a bald statement that the painting of the girl doesn’t represent a real person. Her image is allegorical.
The paintings aren’t what they seem. Their imagery may be disturbing at first glance, but they’re alluring, begging to be decoded and understood. At first glance, Valls’ clever allusion to Magritte might make his paintings seem like surrealist works, which they’re not.
Valls hides his meaning in plain sight, invites you to do some traveling to get to your destination. The language of the label announces that we are expected to work if we want to understand. Latin is the language of scholars, of history. We are being invited into a revelatory exploration for meaning.
This absolutely isn’t surreal obscurity for its own sake, for Valls isn’t a surrealist; he’s an allegorist. If the girl isn’t a girl, who, or what does she stand for? What are we to think?
Valls repeatedly installs the girl as an object in a cabinet of curiosity, the predecessor to our modern museums. Assembled before reductionism took its grip upon Western culture, these antiquarian collections inherited the mysterious aura of supernatural intercession that had previously been the province of miracle-working relics. Cabinets of curiosity were above all an exploration of mystery, motivated by a desire to contain and perhaps reveal the secrets of the universe, paradoxically resisting explanation at the same time as leading toward a gnostic revelation of the veiled truth. Some of them were famous as places for pilgrimage, where instead of enjoying a religious veneration of dead saints, pilgrims were invited into an exploration of natural philosophy.
The contents of the collections emphasized the intimate microcosmic connection of the natural world to the universe, recognizing the fundamental principle “as above, so below,” that expressed the Neo-Platonism of the early Renaissance. But although Valls’ allegorical sensibility is indicated by his deliberate reference to the cabinets and by his allusions to theatrical display in which things are concealed behind and revealed by the curtain, he’s not proposing a return to the sixteenth century. He’s got a far more pressing contemporary issue on his mind.
As the subject of a study, the girl is repeatedly presented in states of concealment and revelation; she’s partly covered by fabric that is pulled away by an external power, represented in the paintings by surgical instruments and metal devices indicating a controlling force beyond her self. In Ipsius F. her frighteningly vulnerable face gazes directly out, as if to challenge us to make sense of this. Now she’s wearing a device on her hand that holds a scalpel, which is writing on a label, repeated as the trompe-lœil title taped to the corner of the painting.
If you have the patience to decipher his clues, Valls never misses a chance to tell you that his paintings are allegorical, and here is a big clue if you’re interested in what this girl really is: the device directing her hand to write is connected to an identical scalpel touching the girl’s temple, suggesting that the head is somehow connected to the words written by the hand. What does a scalpel do, if not reveal what is hidden within? And if this wasn’t clear enough, when found on a painting, the “F” in the title Ipsius F is usually an abbreviation for the Latin fecit. So Ipsius Fecit means: “made of…”. The girl is the allegorical symbol of the connection between mind and body. The girl is your mind. We are quite literally being asked what we think, asked to consider the mind’s relationship with the body; how we fail to nurture it; how we fail to treat consciousness well; how we mistreat it by neglecting it or by forcing control upon it.
Using highly developed systems of signs and meanings distinguishes humanity from other creatures, completely governing our understanding of the material world and providing the prehistoric foundations for culture and religion.
We experience reality only though our senses, which means that everything we perceive is subject to the interpretation of our mind. This means that everything we perceive stands for something – we can’t fully understand reality because we interpret everything from what we sense. If this stands for that, it can’t be equal to that, it can’t have identical characteristics; it is a symbol of that. If everything has meaning, then we interpret the world as a hierarchy. We interpret the things we perceive in reality as a complex and immense swarm of interconnected allegories. We understand reality by interpreting symbols.
So now I’d like to ask you to re-think the girl, thinking of her as the representative of your mind – poked, injured, examined and afflicted with reductive processes.
Valls’ extraordinarily complex and brilliant painting Ars Magna shows the girl at the center of a Victorian stage, haloed with an astrolabe, indicating the cosmos. On stage right we see the alchemical king, crowned with fire and robed in gold, regally holding Hermes’ rod, which is surmounted by an all-seeing eye, the emblem of God. On stage left the alchemical queen is crowned with the half moon of Isis, bearing a mirror and Diana’s owl, who grips another all-seeing eye in its beak. A theatrical drape separates the trio from an audience (labeled in Hebrew as Jehovah) whom we only see as a half hidden crowd of faces whose features closely resemble the girl’s, peeking over the backdrop. They’re the collective consciousness of other similar, but not identical, consciousness that forms the one mind. The ladder, a well-known symbol of the Platonic hierarchy of ascent toward the one mind, indicates that we should read the painting allegorically.
The title header of the painting describes the scene as Ars Magna – lucis et umbrae, (the great art – for the lights and the darkness) this time defining the girl as the embodiment of the alchemical quintessence. Alchemy is largely misunderstood as the search for gold, which is a naïve materialist’s interpretation of the far more worthwhile project that was the real goal of alchemists: to decipher the creation of the universe and become united with the one mind by understanding how it worked.
In Eden, the alchemical King and Queen had been asked to live in harmony tending the garden of the one mind; this they failed to do, so they were turned out to tend the material earth instead, which ever since has been an attempt to rediscover the balance of mind and material. Valls’ pearl-like paintings are an appeal to nurture your quintessential mind, to return to Eden.
|Michael Pearce PhD MFA is Associate Professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California, where he teaches figurative painting and drawing. Pearce also organizes the Representational Art Conferences.|
|This is the first of a series he is writing for Combustus.|
|Read Deanna Piowaty’s interview: “Dino Valls, Madrid: When a Surgeon Paints.”|