The beautiful and disturbing art of Dino Valls
July 20, 2008 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Dino Valls (NSFW) (large format slide show of his work) is a self-taught Spanish artist who studied Italian and Flemish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Use of egg tempera and oil is one of his favorite painting techniques, requiring great mastery but affording rich color and tone. His works are beautiful, disturbing and surreal. posted by madamjujujive (61 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
*clicks second link*

*shrieks a bit*

*backs away for a minute*

This is startling but amazing as well...
posted by jokeefe at 12:13 PM on July 20, 2008

The most immediate response I have to his work involves those bodily memories of being ill as a child-- being hospitalized, subject to tests that you don't understand, having to deal with mysterious and threatening medical equipment. And the experience of the child's body being an uncontrollable and confounding thing, and being locked in some kind of mute struggle with it (I had severe asthma as a child). It's the same thing I see in Chris Cunningham's film Rubber Johnny: being trapped in a strange, shifting body that is overwhelmed with sensation, and feeling like you're being pulled apart. There's a kind of brutal transcendence in there, as well, once you've been doing nothing but struggling to breathe for hours or minutes... these images of bodily morphing, and the defacement of children's bodies, are hugely evocative for me.
posted by jokeefe at 12:24 PM on July 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Brilliant technique. But like all the wonderfully talented naturalistic painters of our age, he has nothing to say. All he can think of to do with his magnificent technique is to "disturb" us with surreal juxtapositions of objects and images. Is this worth all that meticulous effort? He uses methods that were developed to glorify God, man, and nature to produce emotionally vacant surface art with all the intellectual content of a 1970s LP cover.
posted by Faze at 12:27 PM on July 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

He uses methods that were developed to glorify God, man, and nature

Care to expand on this?
posted by jokeefe at 12:33 PM on July 20, 2008

An interesting take on this work Faze, but I can't say I agree. Paintings of antiquity are full of symbolism, this work seems to take it a step further and add a riddle to the objects depicted. So far from being, emotionally vacant surface art with all the intellectual content of a 1970s LP cover. I think this is very deep. If I had the tallent to paint this well this is the kind of work I would be striving for.
posted by nola at 12:54 PM on July 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I tend to agree with Faze here. The simpler images, like this, are the most interesting and carry the strongest emotional content. In this painting he realizes that he doesn't need all those props, all those symbolistic dead weights.

Painters with excellent technique - Odd Nerdrum is another example - rarely find anything interesting to do with their skill. Their paintings often end up being pastiches of older art and that means choosing a dead end road.
posted by Termite at 1:10 PM on July 20, 2008

I don't really like these, sadly.
posted by chuckdarwin at 1:21 PM on July 20, 2008

But like all the wonderfully talented naturalistic painters of our age, he has nothing to say.

It has been my observation that, more often that not, it is the untalented artist who needs to "say something" in order to justify his or her ham-fisted scribblings.

This demonstration of technical skill is a statement all in itself. This rocks. Thanks mjjj.
posted by three blind mice at 1:24 PM on July 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Painters with excellent technique - Odd Nerdrum is another example - rarely find anything interesting to do with their skill. Their paintings often end up being pastiches of older art and that means choosing a dead end road.

That's because their skill is aimed at representation. Representation as such, post-photography, isn't all that interesting.

That said, I really like these paintings -- they play, very richly, I think, with the historical and religious heritage of their techniques.
posted by treepour at 1:37 PM on July 20, 2008

Postmodernism is why we can't have nice things.

The demand that all work be an avatar for an intellectual discourse, have emotional impact, or spell out some narrative, to me, is as soul-less and boring as your 70's LP cover. More tedious art-school semi-intellectual pseudo academic Art Forum nonsense.

I think it's bizarre and fascinating that someone would choose such a labor intensive technique in this day and age (instead of say, photoshopping it). I think the work is interesting in that it seeks to emulate works done hundreds of years ago, whose motivations and narratives are lost to history and mostly just speculated on. They are these odd talismans hearkening back to something that is gone forever.
posted by device55 at 1:38 PM on July 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

Transgress much?
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:42 PM on July 20, 2008

gorgeous and fascinating. thank you.
posted by supermedusa at 1:43 PM on July 20, 2008

Wow, I would love to be able to buy some prints of these to hang on my walls.
posted by sveskemus at 1:50 PM on July 20, 2008

i'm really enjoying this post. thanks, madam jjj!
posted by CitizenD at 1:51 PM on July 20, 2008

What Faze said.

H R Giger student-y "alternative" appeal, but not much else. These look like something that might get airbrushed onto the side of a truck or a Harley Davidson fuel tank.
posted by fire&wings at 1:54 PM on July 20, 2008

This post is freaking me the hell out. But I love it.
posted by agropyron at 1:54 PM on July 20, 2008

Having recently finished a joyous three days in the art museums of the Smithsonian, I respond to jokeefe as follows:

Representational art--from the caves of Altamira to date--has always been associated with religion. To capture the god--however described--in pigment or stone has been the means to reify the link between the worshipper and the worshipped. Whether a red ochre rendering on a cave wall of the animals without whom Neolithic life was impossible or a giant marble statue of Pallas Athena that evoked the tutelary deity of the eponymous polis, the fruit of the artists' labor glorified the gods.

After the collapse of Roman rule in the West, the Catholic Church acquired "the franchise" for art patronage that had formerly belonged to State paganism, which franchise it would hold until the Reformation. During those centuries, the focal point of most art was the decoration of churches and the depiction of saints, angels and martyrs--as well as the stories of the Gospel, culminating with the Crucifixion and Resurrection. All of this art was expressly intended to glorify God and illuminate the "back story" of the Church for the edification of a mostly illiterate "customer base." With the Renaissance's recapture of the forgotten humanism of the Hellenistic era, however, the artistic skills once devoted exclusively to the purposes of the Church began to be applied to the glorification of secular princes--and the depiction of daily life. Paintings ostensibly religious in subject began to serve as vehicles for painting of life as observed, as in Caravaggio's startlingly realistic Bible scenes set in contemporary dress.

When the Reformation broke the Catholic Church's exclusive patent on European Christianity, a substantial iconoclastic wing of Protestantism (the Calvinists) expelled visual art from the service of God. Then, the skills that had glorified the cathedrals had nowhere to turn but to the depiction of Man and Nature, glorifying them, in turn, as they had once glorified the Trinity. The Catholic Church continued to patronize the arts, but the humanistic cat was completely out of the bag.

The technique of Senor Valls (a Catalan, no?) is luminous and extraordinary, evoking the best of the realistic painters of Europe. But I must agree that it glorifies nothing: terrified teenagers, prisoners of sinister forces apparently applied by Mengelian medicos in no way edify the human condition or evoke the hope of salvation of any kind. The pictures, so superbly limned, evoke to me only this dreadful line from King Lear :

"We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys. They kill us for their sport."
posted by rdone at 1:57 PM on July 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Postmodernism is why we can't have nice things.

Oh, c'mon. I think you mean modernism. Postmodernism is either a strawman meant to conveniently bundle-up "everything that's wrong with the academic elite" or the return of repressed romanticism. In both senses, these (and Odd Nerdrum's work) are as postmodern as it gets.
posted by treepour at 2:01 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

These look like something that might get airbrushed onto the side of a truck or a Harley Davidson fuel tank.

You are either unfamiliar with the work we're talking about, or you're unfamiliar with the type of stuff that gets airbrushed onto vans. I'm not saying this guy's work ranks with the masterpieces of the ages, but it's a far cry from, say, goalie facemask art.

Is there any artist who could get posted to Metafilter whose work wouldn't get crapped on?
posted by Justinian at 2:08 PM on July 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

The technique of Senor Valls (a Catalan, no?) is luminous and extraordinary, evoking the best of the realistic painters of Europe. But I must agree that it glorifies nothing

Who said art has to glorify something? Why should certain artistic techniques remain chained to their historical past? These critiques sound fossilized and, frankly, reactionary.
posted by Justinian at 2:09 PM on July 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yes, yes, The Horror Of The Human Condition, pale-skinned northern European subcategory. Technically masterful, ultimately boring.
posted by longsleeves at 2:17 PM on July 20, 2008

I agree that it's unfair to paint repressed romanticism or misplaced film criticism with the 'postmodern' brush. I was being snarky which didn't help my point.

And these are very postmodern in the sense that they are meta-paintings, in which the artist is exploring the history of painting and figurative representation within the paintings. Sometimes this is very direct, by using egg tempera, sometimes it's more symbolic, by featuring Ed Muybridge images in the background behind a romantically painted nude figure.

Mostly I find the critique "the work lacks narrative" or "the work lacks emotional impact" to be missing the point entirely. Like going to see a romantic comedy at the movie theater and complaining there wasn't enough explosions. It's just not relevant criticism. It's fine not to like this kind of work, and react emotionally against it, and say so. Good criticism must judge work upon the terms it lays forward.

These works are cool, thoughtful, very historically aware, and introspective. I would *love* to see the vans and motorcycle fuel tanks these supposedly look like.

(I love love love my Herman Miller table. But I would confess that the current love of modernism is as postmodern as anything else)
posted by device55 at 2:22 PM on July 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

Thank you, madamjujujive. I love them. I couldn't stop staring at this one.
posted by lysistrata at 2:22 PM on July 20, 2008

I really liked a few of them. This triptych in particular made me smile, with all the funny stuff going on (link nsfw), and there were some I'd love to see in real life. Some of them were much less interesting, though, and I can see where a some of the criticism is coming from.
posted by Forktine at 2:24 PM on July 20, 2008

(by "cool" I mean emotionally withdrawn, not "cool" like James Dean)
posted by device55 at 2:24 PM on July 20, 2008

Representation as such, post-photography, isn't all that interesting.

I disagree: I think that post-photographic representation is even more interesting, for being set free from its quotidian roots. Why bother to paint when a photograph, supposedly, captures reality? Etc.

These paintings are, however, hardly realist. And the van painting/fuel tank thing? Really?
posted by jokeefe at 2:45 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

He uses methods that were developed to glorify God, man, and nature to produce emotionally vacant surface art with all the intellectual content of a 1970s LP cover.

What, he should confine his subject matter to landscapes and renderings of the Annunciation? I disagree that the fundamental raison d'etre for these techniques was/is to glorify God, man, and nature - they were developed to further the technology, art, and craft of painting. It is incidental that this technological advance occurred in an era when art was primarily concerned with nature, portraits, classical subjects and religious topics. Today, in a psychology era, it is fitting that art should speak to modern man's inner landscape - feelings of isolation, conflict with technology, relationship to the past, and more.

I also don't think it is valid to say that Valls' works are emotionally vacant just because they do not strike a chord with you. The emotional quotient of art is pretty subjective. I've never had much of a response to the Mona Lisa, but the rest of the world obviously does.

On preview, I cite device55's excellent comment, which articulates much of my thinking better than I have been able to do. In addition to his excellent mastery of a difficult painting technique, much of what intrigues me in Valls' works is, as device55 says, that they are "meta-paintings, in which the artist is exploring the history of painting and figurative representation within the paintings."

I like these discussions, particularly when views collide. But I bridle a bit at Mefi's tendency to be dismissive about a lot of art that is posted. If we have to wait around for the next Rembrandt, Van Gogh, or Picasso, we won't have many things to post. True genius is rare. Meanwhile, while his works might not be to everybody's taste, Valls' work is certainly noteworthy.
posted by madamjujujive at 2:51 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I realized why it bothers me so much that some people are criticizing Valls for the disassociation with a technique from it's religious roots. Would you guys argue that novels are a failure because the printing press was invented to mass produce bibles? I suspect you would not.
posted by Justinian at 3:10 PM on July 20, 2008

I think the smarty-pants Art Forum types would be turned off not by the investment in technique or the content of the work, but by the stage-y way the figures interact with the viewer (the centered composition, direct eye contact, the earnest suffering conveyed in the facial expressions, the contrived environments and anachronistic props...).

And I sort of agree.

However, I quite liked the examples of his work that felt more candid and naturalistic, and contained less paraphernalia (the images of the young girl getting her teeth prodded come to mind).

They are very beautiful and make me want to paint. Thanks for the post!
posted by ducky l'orange at 3:23 PM on July 20, 2008

Very nice technically, brilliant use of colour. I don't find any problems with composition or artistic statement. The only difficulty I perceive, and unfortunately it is rampant, is the lack of anatomic correctness. In particular, he has painted a touchingly realistic skin but he's draped it muscles and bones that aren't the size, shape and location they should be. And I think it's fair to complain about it, because I note nothing in his oeuvre that suggests that anatomical incorrectness is intentional.

To sum up: I like it very much, but I think he needs a couple years of intense figure study before he goes on.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:30 PM on July 20, 2008

Noteworthy, certainly, and thanks for that; I looked at all 86! But I completely agree that there's not much worth noting besides the technical mastery, of which there's a LOT these days. I don't think the meta thing is really much of an exploration; it's just a bunch of pointers to things already very well understood, if not already totally beaten to death, no?

I'm afraid I gotta go with the van-painting camp: Choose your style/technical level from column A, and your tribal objects/degree of angsty-kinky neurosis from column B. Not that this can't be briefly diverting, of course... I'm certainly in the "these modern realist technical wizards mostly haven't said anything yet" camp.

The main thing I think they HAVE said (and that Valls reiterates) that's of universal interest is that photography is absolutely NOT the end of compelling, moving and expressive realistic representation. But I'm more impressed when the expression is in the manner of the representation and not so much in the stuff being represented. THEN it seems more like painting to me, and not just set dressing or symbol juggling.

But thanks, again!
posted by dpcoffin at 3:55 PM on July 20, 2008


Is it not tautological to say that the techniques of painting were invented merely to "further the technology, art, and craft of painting."? I suggest that such a mechanistic assessment is fundamentally inconsistent with the commonly held notion that artists--visual and otherwise--are trying to say something by means of their techniques. I also suggest that Senor Valls would be the first to assert that he is not merely attempting to show off with his astounding draw/paint skills, but rather to make a point about the prevalence of nipples, or something. He clearly offers much in the way of allusions to Art History, not only by utilization of bravura (if antiquarian) technical prowess. I doubt and would never suggest that he is doing this merely to show how smart he is.

But whatever he intends to convey with his exquisitely detailed nudes is either disturbingly obvious or so opaque that it is not readily comprehensible. So--leaving aside the too facile conclusion that he just like to paint weird pictures of naked teens as if he were Rembrandt or Titian--I can only conclude that he has failed to communicate to me what his larger point is for creating such an elaborate series of thematically related paintings.

My conclusion has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Valls' work has no apparent relationship with religion. I am sure I would be enthralled if he used his astounding technical skill to paint an equally richly detailed portrait of a putain from Barcelona--including her nipples, of course. I would never suggest that his art be relegated to Harley tanks. But as someone with a transcendant gift for portraiture, Valls should probably try a little harder to use those skills to create people with whom his viewers may empathize--and from which to grasp his artistic intention.
posted by rdone at 4:00 PM on July 20, 2008

His works are beautiful, disturbing and surreal.

These adjectives, as well as "well-crafted" could aptly describe any one work. As a whole, however, I find the body of work redundant. Every face is equally terrified, every nude equally naked...which makes me wonder if he is feeling the pressure to stick to a 'a style'.
posted by debbie_ann at 4:02 PM on July 20, 2008

I like this. Thanks, mjjj.
posted by homunculus at 4:16 PM on July 20, 2008

Previous post on Odd Nerdrum.
posted by homunculus at 4:24 PM on July 20, 2008

It's impressive work, but I'm afraid I found the apparently-underage girls a bit offputting.
posted by rodgerd at 5:07 PM on July 20, 2008

Representation as such, post-photography, isn't all that interesting.

These are clearly painted from photographs, not from life.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:12 PM on July 20, 2008

The only difficulty I perceive, and unfortunately it is rampant, is the lack of anatomic correctness ... I note nothing in his oeuvre that suggests that anatomical incorrectness is intentional.

well, if you go to the "curriculum" section of his web site, you may note that before taking up painting, he was a licensed surgeon. so, i would think his grasp of anatomy is probably pretty good, and it also sheds some light on the themes in his work.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:35 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

rdone, what is interesting to me in your critique is that there's an assumption of narrative, of trying to express something in particular. This tells me more about your needs as a viewer than it does about the art work itself.

I don't believe there is a narrative here, at least beyond the incidental "hey that looks like a person, and I'm a person, so maybe we have something in common" reaction we have to photos and paintings of people.

This work is very flat, very modernist. To me it's like a figurative Franz Klein. To rehash an old cliche it's "painting about painting" except the paintings look like something.

This work reminds me of Gregory Gillespie's work.

Now if you want some hyper realism that has a narrative, I recommend Bo Bartlett:
posted by device55 at 5:37 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

(today I suck at HTML, sorry. those links should be links)
posted by device55 at 5:40 PM on July 20, 2008

I think he should just do the lips and nips except all those pairs should stick together into whole human shapes in the process of doing something other than staring as if at a camera. They should be the camera, only one made of specialized tissues.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 6:17 PM on July 20, 2008

From Dr. Valls' site:

His paintings do not explain, but make an appeal to the unknown and darkest side of human nature. "Obscurum per obscurius, ignotum per ignotius." (An old alchemist saying).

Alas, the antithesis of edification: obscurity for its own sake. I was afraid of that. Perhaps Dr. Valls' gives vent to anti-Hippocratic tendencies while maintaining the meticulous attention to detail that is a hallmark of the surgeon's art

d55, I am not forever in search of a narrative, but always on the lookout for a semiotic of some description. Great representational art stops time in its tracks and, in that frozen moment, signals the artist's intent. Valls' work causes me to marvel at his skill but sends me no signal that induces the shock of recognition.
posted by rdone at 6:30 PM on July 20, 2008

These were great, madamjujujive.

In groping for something to say about them that hasn't already been said upthread, I find I'm unable to produce any insights that are insights into the painting and are not insights into me. So this might be a long and pointless ramble. I won't know until after the fact.

There are, I feel, at least two unfortunate tendencies which seem to dominate any discussion about a particular artist and/or their art. The first is the too-quick assumption that some art has messages while other art doesn't, and the second is the suspicion that the artist is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Nobody seems to have objected that Valls is trying to cheat us, so I'll confine my remarks to what has been said.

I find art to be often confusing, vexatious, and anxiety-inducing. Some art looks 'good', some of it looks 'bad'. These labels have nothing to do with the art and everything to do with me. I try not to let my judgements bother me, i.e. I try not to be disturbed by the fact that I might like (or hate) art which is disturbing, or tawdry, or kitsch, and I try not to beat myself up when I am indifferent to art which I feel I should be moved by.

Someone on MeFi once wrote that there is no right way to approach art. I think this is true. The confusion and vexation I referred to above is a consequence of slipping back into old habits - the need to uncover the real meaning behind a piece. I think this arises from the tendency to cast myself in the role of an audience to art, with the artist as presenter. I'm sure there are artists that feel the same way, but there are other ways to approach art which are equally valid.

'Stareability' - that's the quality I ascribe to art that you either can't look away from, or keep returning to. Why? With me, it's because I dwell on threads - little things that my mind tugs on like the loose thread in the sweater. Nearly everything is a thread when you're in a certain frame of mind. Those odd highlights that Valls places on the lips: do they lend a plastic quality to the flesh? Why do I think they lend an artificial quality? Why does it affect me?

Some of the figures in the paintings are holding their hands in odd ways. Why is she forming that symbol with her fingers? Why does she cover one nipple and not the other? Is that significant? Why do I even notice it? Is it a trick? Am I worried that he is trying to make me look stupid? Why do I care?

The way he paints flesh, the exaggerated vulnerability of it, is disturbing. But why am I disturbed? The youthful nudity is shocking. Why am I shocked? There is nothing brazen about the figures. They are simply unclothed. What is it inside of me that produced this reaction?

These are particulars, and it's pleasurable to allow the mind to flit from one particular to another, tugging at a thread a little, leaving off, coming back. It's also pleasurable to note the point at which one begins to lose the distinction between artist, art, and myself. The need for a message starts to recede, and I begin to realize that given a certain kind of art and and the time and inclination to think about it, my mind will simply expand to fill the blank spaces. My conception of separate identities - my own, the artist, the figure in the painting - start to bleed together. It's at this point that I would actively resent the imposition of a message or narrative - it could only narrow my perspective. It could only end my relationship with the art.

Some art, which others call timeless, has become dead to me for precisely this reason - through no fault of the artist. Guernica is beautiful, but I have become indifferent to it. I can't any more enter into it on any level other than spectator - albeit a well-informed spectator. One day I may find a fresh set of eyes with which to see it, the way I seem to have developed a fresh set of eyes with which to see religious paintings from the Middle Ages, which are chock-full of narrative.

Other art I think is deliberately stillborn. It was only ever designed to produce a message, and actively confounds any other relationship. It speaks and we listen passively, and on some level we enjoy it, I suppose. I guess this is the realm of propaganda, PR, and advertising, although given the right mentality, just about anything can prompt the mind into a broader view of the world, even if it's airbrushed on the side of a van.
posted by Ritchie at 8:07 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I quite liked some of it, tho' I'd never want to own it. It would... spook me out too much. Not something for a home: it's something for a gallery.

After the umpteenth dozen repeat of a theme, though ("children in pain" seemed the significant one), I was ready for something new. Needs more variety of concept and execution. Maybe some happy little trees.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:20 PM on July 20, 2008

There are, I feel, at least two unfortunate tendencies which seem to dominate any discussion about a particular artist and/or their art. The first is the too-quick assumption that some art has messages while other art doesn't, and the second is the suspicion that the artist is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Number three, at least on the internet, is the notion that you can tell everything you need to know about an artist's works by flipping through a series of 600px square jpegs in a browser, good lord, this is informing so many of you people's assessments here and you sound like you know enough to be aware of this pit since they drill it in you from freaking 1st semester art history on but then woop! there you go every time. I mean

Great representational art stops time in its tracks and, in that frozen moment, signals the artist's intent.

you would not see it if it was there, viewing the works of a fine artist previously unknown to you in this manner. Guarantee you. Don't believe I would either. Woosh, there it goes, clicky clicky clicky.

They certainly look interesting enough and I am glad that I am aware of this artist and I'd like to see the paintings sometime.
posted by furiousthought at 10:43 PM on July 20, 2008

May I ask Faze and the other "van painting" folk to give examples of what they appreciate as art with something to say?

My first thought of a similar artist was Bo Bartlett, especially his Bride piece. Both Bartlett's and Valls' art evoke narrative in my mind, but if I'm missing out on something beyond that I'd love to learn about it.
posted by jsmith77 at 6:49 AM on July 21, 2008

Representational art--from the caves of Altamira to date--has always been associated with religion.
posted by rdone at 1:57 PM on July 20

To the degree that this statement is not simply meaningless, it is utterly false.
posted by newmoistness at 7:42 AM on July 21, 2008

Kitsch is not, as those believers in erudite culture would like to imagine, the mere refuse of art, originating in disloyal accommodation to the enemy; rather, it lurks in art, awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth. Although kitsch escapes, imp-like, from even a historical definition, one of its most tenacious characteristics is the prevarication of feelings, fictional feelings in which no one is actually participating, and thus the neutralization of these feelings. Kitsch parodies catharsis. Ambitious art, however, produces the same fiction of feelings; indeed, this was essential to it: The documentation of actually existing feelings, the recapitulation of psychical raw material, is foreign to it. It is in vain to try to draw the boundaries abstractly between aesthetic fiction and kitsch's emotional plunder. It is poison admixed to all art; excising it is today one of art's despairing efforts.

Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno
posted by xod at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2008

Nice ramble, Ritchie. And somewhat to razdrez's question:

I agree that "...there is no right way to approach art." (Or to DO art. Altho I reserve the right to think there might be wrong ways to do it...)
In response to R and r's posts, I offer MY way of reacting to art:

I'm a painter, a visual artist. I'm also a fervent viewer of visual art. I spend hours a week looking at other folk's visual art, mostly paintings and other 2D images, both online and in books, often unfortunately more time than I have to spare, and more time than I get to spend on producing my own art, which seems to need large chunks of uninterrupted time. I'm all over posts like this one. I'm also very selective; I bail quickly on many more gallery pages than I linger over. I lingered over the Valls site, but what I found most compelling was registering my growing disinterest in the work, which is why I posted my brief comment above about being in the "it's van-painting" camp.

I didn't actually mean that I thought Valls' work no better than your average 70s van painting or album-cover illustration. If I'd seen one of his images on a van or record jacket, I'd have been pretty gob-smacked, I admit. But only because of the technical expertise and, perhaps, the obvious familiarity with Gothic and Renaissance art. To me, the van-painting part is all about the fact that the meat of these images seemed increasingly to me to be about the stuff being pictured, and not about the image itself. It seemed to me that that's what Valls finds interesting in his own work, and I'm just not that interested. In pictures I love, I don't CARE what the picture's OF. I care about what the picture IS.

This is, at its depths, a really hard distinction for me to explain well; I've tried many times, in conversations, art forums and in my classes for aspiring painters. It's also the main reason I love art and trying to DO art. It seems to me to be almost a matter of physiology, the way I respond to images that makes me love them when i do. It's a matter of nervous-system temperament, I guess, and I make no claims about it being the best way to approach visual art. It's obviously not the only way. It's simply that I know very quickly whether an artist I'm looking at or a viewer who is commenting on art shares my way of responding or not, and if they do, I feel a significant bond and a deep confirmation. I find this bond most readily with other makers of art, but it's obvious from the vast sea of images that I don't find engaging in this way, that many art-makers are interested in other things than what I'm looking for. OTH, I find what I'm looking for in a great deal of work, from all ages, that's generally regarded as great art, so I don't feel what I'm talking about is a mere quirk.

It's about the things that visual art can do that are impossible to do otherwise, in text, or sound, or acting... In other words, it's not about narrative, or symbols, or even, often, about meaning. It happens when I see a work that stimulates a certain weird nerve I seem to have: The Visual Thrill nerve, I might call it. It's probably a nerve that every visual artist has and likes to tickle a bit (Valls has it; his skin rendering proves it to me. Every human? Probably often undeveloped or even not noticed...), but unless they really get into tickling it in their work, in a way that I can relate to (I admit, it's totally subject to personal variability, of course), well, I just move on. The artists I love seem to me to clearly be focusing mainly on this nerve, not at all to the exclusion of all the other potential powers that visual imagery has, but inescapably, they give this nerve a good buzz, too. And they keep exploring it, moving on while never moving away, often moving more towards it. They must love it as I do. God knows, so many have it, and can work it, better than I can...

When I hear somebody describe a musician or a piece of music as being "musical," I know immediately what they mean, or what I would mean if I described some work that way, as opposed to all the vast sea of "music" that isn't very musical, to my ears. Not all music is "musical," you know? Same with pictures... I don't think I've ever heard the word "visual" used in quite the same way, but I'd understand it to be an analogous concept if I did.

If you took away all the parts of Valls' work that could be pretty well described in text, what would be left? Gone would be all the references to Art History and to anatomy lessons and the heartless, unfeeling scientific examinations and depersonalized cataloging, the minutia of his stage craft and model posings and body mergings, stigmata, and extra nipples, all the pen nibs, all the multiple frames. What would you have to actually SEE to experience at all? This is what I think about when I ask what a painting can SAY. For me it would be some of the skin tones and textures and the gazes in Valls' work. Nice. But pretty thin, after a few instances. Then there's the compelling quality of his obsessive output and his relentless technique, the repetition compulsion thing... Are any of these things developed, focused upon, stretched? Do these evolve? Not so much, to my eyes.

Comparisons are odious, but who gives me what I want? In this vein, I'll take Balthus , Stanley Spencer, hell, even Grant Wood, actually. Off the top of my head...
posted by dpcoffin at 12:39 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

dp, your comment seems a rather complicated way of saying you don't why you like or dislike something - you just do.
posted by xod at 2:32 PM on July 21, 2008

Well, if that's all you got from my comment, it was a failure. Sorry. Perhaps it was a little clearer on why I don't like Valls work so far.
posted by dpcoffin at 2:38 PM on July 21, 2008

I'll try again.

If you took away from Van Gogh's work all the things you could easily describe: the shoe, the girl, the sky, the sunflower, the chair, the bed, what would be left? To my eye, you'd still have a most eloquent VISUAL statement of world intoxication, desperate energy, determination to connect without duplicating, refusal to capitulate to existing visual slang and personal limitation, along with a fascinating and highly specific record of a unique moment in an ongoing exploration (a real exploration, not just a rehearsal of themes) of color and gesture as both expressive and descriptive. None of my descriptions of these communiques can actually give you the experience of seeing them. Only the paintings can do that. That's part of what I like in a painting. The rest is probably too subjective to be worth describing in a forum. HTH.
posted by dpcoffin at 2:53 PM on July 21, 2008

dpcoffin: I am not disagreeing with your personal reaction to various works of art. But it reads to me like you have a visceral reaction to various art and all of this about something still being there once you remove things you could easily describe is a rationalized back-formation.

I think art is all about a visceral reaction so that's not a criticism. But as xod said in a kind of dismissive way, saying "There is something in van Gogh beyond what you can describe verbally" really is just a way of saying you like van Gogh. Because there is no rational, objective way to quantify what you're talking about.

It's tautological; do you like some paintings because you feel there is more there than can be easily described, or do you feel there is more there than can be easily described because you like the painting?
posted by Justinian at 3:09 PM on July 21, 2008

Perhaps it was a little clearer on why I don't like Valls work so far.

I have to admit I'm somewhat mystified by that also. You ask, "If you took away all the parts of Valls' work that could be pretty well described in text, what would be left?" and go on to list a good portion of his content, conceding skin tone, texture and gazes as something the paintings are able to "SAY". But skin, texture and gazes are content too and just as describable as the pose of a model. This is not a defense of Valls' work. I just don't think that objecting to certain content as "heartless, unfeeling scientific examinations and depersonalized cataloging" is effective criticism.

On the other hand, the idea that there is the possibility of a "VISUAL statement of world intoxication, desperate energy, determination to connect without duplicating, refusal to capitulate to existing visual slang and personal limitation, along with a fascinating and highly specific record of a unique moment in an ongoing exploration (a real exploration, not just a rehearsal of themes) of color and gesture as both expressive and descriptive.", that, I totally understand.
posted by xod at 3:47 PM on July 21, 2008

Geez, I guess I'm completely failing to make my points. Well, in for a penny... ONE more try:

What I'm saying is that there's a kind of content that exists in every painting, in the handling of paint, and in all the other purely formal elements of 2D visual art that goes beyond, and doesn't depend on, the literal content, the style, the era, the school, the cultural narrative, the overt or covert "messages," whatever (altho it certainly can interact with these things in potentially wonderful or obstructive ways, if they exist in the work, too). I regard the manipulation of this content as a very rich, complex language that I've been being spoken to with (and been trying to speak back) for decades, and I'm very aware that not everybody speaks it, or even notices it, even if they really like paintings (and if they paint, even tho they're speaking it whether they know they are or not).

Still, it's what I react to most strongly in paintings, not that I'm blind to the rest, but it's how paintings SAY things that only paintings can say, or fail to say. It's what makes abstract art as intelligible as any other kind. You can start to name the elements in this language, its "words," so to speak: Composition, color, value, texture, shape, gesture, calligraphy, personality... but these categories tend to obscure what happens in practice as the "words" form thoughts. And they become increasingly invisible, just as real words do, as the thoughts begin to become conversations.

I'm not saying that this language is beyond culture, or subjectivity, or accessible only to the few, or unlearnable, or anything else like that, altho I think it has tendencies in all those directions. But those are other issues. I'm just saying that it EXISTS.

It's not that I object to other kinds of content in paintings, and I wasn't making any objections about Valls' particular choices, compared to VG's or anyone else's. It wasn't a critique to note the obvious (I thought) "unfeeling"-ness of the "examiners" in the work. How I react to that is another matter altogether, untackled by me so far. He can speak the literal, narrative languages of objects and symbols that conveyed this info to me perfectly well.

It's simply that I find his use of the other language, the formal one I care more about, quite stilted and unmoving... but with some potential. It seems that he isn't much interested in this language, doesn't put any continuing effort into it, as if he feels he's figured that part out sufficiently already and wants to get back to the things that matter more to him; they simply matter less to me. His message with what I'm calling the formal language is the same few "words" over and over in every painting. Reading the language has nothing to do with whether I like the work or not. Actually, I was prepared to like Valls' work from the first example, looking forward to what he would do with his considerable tools... but then it never changed, never developed; it turned out, to my ears, to be nothing but a sort of chant, in the area I'm speaking about.

Justinian says: "...saying "There is something in van Gogh beyond what you can describe verbally" really is just a way of saying you like van Gogh."
Not at all. There's no reason to like what Van Gogh does in order to detect that he's doing it. I do like VG, but I chose him because he's such an obvious example of the formal language speaking loud and clear, while the "other" content is quite unremarkable, as a rule. You don't have to like him to see that, I hope.

"Because there is no rational, objective way to quantify what you're talking about."
In my opinion, painting itself exists because it is the best (maybe the only) way to bring into being the things I'm talking about. And these are NOT necessarily rational things. To me, they ARE very objective. But they ARE non-verbal, essentially, even though one can certainly say a bunch of stuff about them. You can't actually SAY the things themselves without using tools other than words, like paint, etc. That's the beauty of them; they are what makes painting compelling to me... If you feel you must dismiss anything that you can't rationally, objectively quantify, go ahead. But forgive me if I react by thinking this a willful sort of tone deafness (light blindness?) that won't suit you well as an appreciator of painters or paintings.

I dislike having to find metaphors to translate what I read in my preferred language. That's why I paint (and look), and only rarely sucker myself into trying to "describe" it. That's why I listen to music instead of reading about it. To argue that I'm trying to objectify something that's really nothing more than a preference, is (to me) like saying that music is only meaningful as a way of delivering lyrics.

xod says: "But skin, texture and gazes are content too and just as describable as the pose of a model."
Sure, they can all be described, but I don't think all equally well, with words alone. I was simply trying to say that there's a point along the continuum of describability in any painting where words start to fail. (Naturally, it's a moving target, depending on both the speaker and the listener. And I'm all for encouraging speakers to take up the challenge of moving the point ever deeper towards the non-verbal. But that's for wordsmiths, not painters; you have to admit that words WILL eventually fail, no?) I've just been trying to say that I'm looking at the stuff that's there beyond that point, and making judgements about THAT in Valls' work, not about the other stuff. And, for me, THAT's the region where painting takes off, comes into its own, explains itself, or abandons any need to be explained. Sadly (to me), lots of folks apparently don't even SEE this realm. Or notice that they're seeing it. Or value it. Valls doesn't, for one, at least enough to suit me.
posted by dpcoffin at 8:09 PM on July 21, 2008

dpcoffin, I'm glad you mentioned Van Gogh, because I meant to refer to him myself, and then just forgot to include that sentence. I'd intended to hold Van Gogh's Wheatfield With Crows up against Guernica as an example of a painting that still resonated with me in a way that Guernica doesn't. I know some people who dislike Wheatfield intensely, but it has lived within me from the moment I first saw it.

I sympathize with how difficult it is to talk about art - sometimes I feel it would be easier to simply follow people around cradling an armload of art books saying "Do you like this? What do you think of this? Does this make you feel anything?"

I think I understand what you're saying when you argue that Valls is not as broad as Van Gogh or other artists, and while I cannot but agree, breadth is not a metric I personally bring to bear. It's a bit difficult to accurately assess a painters true breadth during his or her lifetime. What we see of Valls is just a slice through his total output, yet to be fully measured. But you're correct, Valls does not range as widely as Van Gogh, who never ranged as widely as Picasso.

I'm not trying to argue for anything here; I think your approach to art is fascinating. I cannot completely get on board with your distinction between what the painting is of versus what it is - to the extent that a painting is of anything other than itself, I'm probably always going to care about that 'of' - which is not to say you won't find me gaping slack-jawed at some Abstract-Expressionist hectare of canvas from time to time.
posted by Ritchie at 9:02 PM on July 21, 2008

Thank you for the thoughtful replies, dp. In general, I agree with your comments regarding form language. We just have very different problems with this work.
posted by xod at 10:04 PM on July 21, 2008

Woke up this morning feeling like I'd forgotten to do something.

Lay there a while chewing lip over the insidious inevitability of blind spots...
Drifted into recollections of this thread (yesterday: "My day with Valls on MetaFilter!")

Suddenly I found myself inside a Valls image:
I'm the prodding investigator!
I'm stacking up my pen nibs in his flesh while I marshall my reflections in perfect self-absorption! Uh-Oh....

Upshot: Time for me to give the man his due. Time will tell, but I suspect that, heedless of my many complaints, he's inserted into my internal image archive quite a few indelible icons for the happily ignored savagery lurking inside the lust for tidy-fingered objectivity and the depersonalizing critical regard with which we (I) so often entertain our equals. Caught...

Allow me, Dr. Valls (whether you are listening or not--If MY work were featured on MF, I'D damn sure be listening...), to congratulate you on your MANY amazing achievements, which in my haste to celebrate myself, I've seriously neglected to acknowledge. You have my sincerest respect as a Master of many aspects of our difficult Craft, and I am grateful for your contributions to the Internal Gallery of My Conscience. I stand by my personal reactions, but kneel at the feet of any Artist who can so engage my attention, anticipating your future work, and the many hours of pleasant critical carping I'm sure it will not escape (nothing ever does), with delight.
posted by dpcoffin at 11:28 AM on July 22, 2008

PS. Ha. Content has last laugh. Form mutters to self in corner.
posted by dpcoffin at 12:17 PM on July 22, 2008

Great comments in this thread, thanks to all who took the time to explain their points of view. I like the back and forth and think many of you have taught me things or expanded my thinking; xod, I loved your kitsch quote, it has sent me on a happy bout of googling, I was unaware of the World Wide Kitsch movement, so thanks for that. dpcoffin, I am so glad you came back and explained your airbrush vans comment, it made so much more sense. Sometimes a comment like that or like faze's just seems like bored snobbery; there may be good reason or thought behind it, as you demonstrated, but just lobbed in with no further elucidation, it seems like drive-by snarky sniping, a mefi specialty. So I appreciated your coming back to participate.

I liked your Visual Thrill nerve concept and, yes, I think I have that little thrill, that frisson, a recognition, when I connect with some pieces of art. It's not just an emotional reaction, although emotion can be part of it - it is cerebral and sensory as well. And I like ritchie's "stareability" quotient as a measure, too.

Not having studied art formally (more than a class or two in college) and not being a painter, I come from a different place than some in this thread. Those of you who have a painterly or an academic interest may appreciate art on another level, you are more informed about color theory, the relationship of color and shape, more knowledge about technique, more knowledge about historical movements - much the way one jazz musician will appreciate another's in a way that I do not. Yet I would maintain that my experience with the work is no less valid than the critic's or the fellow artist's and may indeed be less weighted down with baggage. The role of the viewer, the audience, the fan, the appreciator, the ticket buyer, the patron - it is different, but not necessarily less significant that of the academic or the fellow artist.

At any rate, my thoughts on Valls? Well, I stumbled on a gallery of his works about a year ago, and found that I kept going back to them. His painting is masterful - I find some of his works exquisitely beautiful and very compelling. I like the fairly simple portraits more than the more complex works. But I would have to agree with those who've found a sameness, a type-cast-ness about them. Ritchie makes a good point that we have only seen a part of the artist's work, we have caught him in mid-career, so it will be interesting to see how or if his work changes over time. And while I liked device55's observation about these being meta paintings rooted in historic symbolism and technique - something that appealed to me about the work - I can see why some others might find that to be too much of a device. I can certainly understand why some don't like the works. For me he was an interesting discovery, and last week when his works surfaced for me again on, I thought, hmmm - he might be worth bringing to mefi. I really liked this discussion and am sorry that my work week kept me from playing a more active role. (But I don't really like to play too strong a role in things I post, the tendency to moderate or steer can be too strong, and at heart I am rather more eager to see what others have to say.) So at any rate, thanks to all for such good comments. This is what I enhoy about mefi, there are so many interesting and smart people here, I learn so much about subjects that interest me.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:51 PM on July 23, 2008

Thanks for the interesting WWKitcsh link. You might also not be aware of the Art Renewal site?

My problem with many, if not most, of the contemporary work on these sites is not that I disparage narrative or illusion in painting, and certainly not that I discredit craft, drawing talent or refined skills. And it's most definitely not that I find the traditions and achievements of Western Art History irrelevant. Yikes, no! I love all these things intensely.

It's that I can't ignore what seems the obvious, self-imposed, and willfully dogmatic blindness in these works to virtually all of the 20th Century's fantastic FORMAL discoveries in visual arts, apparently brought on by nothing more than petulance over the modern art world's refusal to think that being able to draw really well is enough to make one A Really Significant Artist. I can relate to the petulance, but not to being able, as self-declared visual beings, to ignore what's right in front of one's eyes, no matter how much you might prefer sentiment to irony, or craft to concept. There are SO many babies in that bathwater...! It's not ALL urinals and sharks in formaldehyde.

Thanks for the original post, mjjj. I've really enjoyed the responses, too.
posted by dpcoffin at 12:21 PM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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