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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 Portraits, Fred 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.
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 détente. 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’s Melancholia (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.
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.
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.”
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.