Two Exhibition Essays


Luigino Valentin


                                                                                                                        Artist Statement



A few years ago I went to see a show of Vermeer paintings in Washington, D.C..  You had to get there early in the morning to get in and even then the line of people already waiting looked endless.  Once inside many people rented those earphones which tell you about the exhibit—you may have seen them.  Anyway, it was all very busy and loud.  The area in front of each painting was 10 deep in people, many of whom were looking at the floor—as people sometimes do when they’re intent on listening to something.  Some would only glance at a painting before moving on to the next.  At one point an argument and shoving broke out and the area in front of me cleared as everyone went to see what was going on.  Everyone, that is, except one girl who remained silent and motionless, lost in looking at the portrait in front of her.  Since I was a few feet more or less behind her I could not really see her face, but her hair, catching one of the lights, was shining.  It was the kind of hair you could easily get caught up in.  You can just imagine.  Well, I was looking at the back of her head and then, next to it, at the face of Vermeer’s girl staring out at us—back and forth, front to back, back and forth—when it suddenly struck me:  this is what Vermeer has to tell us.

You can’t expect things to do what they’re not designed to do.

Picture a girl, a supertanker, or a tree without reducing or augmenting the image linguistically—without even the words that name them.  It is impossible to see these things in their entirety without seeing what surrounds them.  Even if we set them against a black space the relation is to the colour black.  There is no void that we can truly picture in our minds.  There is no quality of ‘clearness’ that we can see.  It is the relationship between what we focus on and what is peripheral that provides a pictorial meaning for each of us.  This meaning will not be the same for all but for all nothing exists outside of any context.

My Rosetta Stone:

When I was very little—2 or 3 maybe—I would be taken to visit my grandmother.  She had a little walled garden at the back of her house which is something very typical there in Holland.  In order to keep me busy—and I can remember actually liking this—I would be given a pail with water, a big paintbrush and a stepladder.  I would then be allowed to go out to the garden and ‘paint’ one of the walls with water.  Now, one of the walls was made of light grey cinderblock which would get noticeably darker if you wet it.  I would start at one end and work my way across the wall.  The problem, however, was that by the time I got halfway across the wall the area where I had begun would have reverted back to light grey because the water had evaporated.  So I would have to go back to the beginning again.  It always became this huge Sisyphean task.  I’d be out there for hours while my grandmother and mother sat inside drinking tea.

The half-life of childhood is long.  Certain qualities remain steadfastly visible like the fibers of a piece of paper when held up to the light and so it is possible to imagine almost anyone as a child.  One of the things we do before we have language skills is create meaning from visual relationships.  As we grow older this method of creating meaning is not replaced.  It is hidden by embellishment and diversion.  It is a kernel within a straw pile of language.


When I was a kid

It would happen

I would be given a green blanket—an island landscape crumpled on the floor—and I would spend a lot of intense time populating it with an array of toy soldiers.  The problem was once you got it all set up there was nothing left to do but go to dinner.  People do not drink wine simply to empty the glass.

We are all born of toys.  It’s difficult for us to create an imagination without them.  Their complexity appears to grow along with us.  For children toys are a theoretical construct used to create a context that can be manipulated.  This makes it easier to see, as through a telescope, the relationships between things.  Toys can be literally grasped.  When children are playing they’re animating and defining what surrounds them, concocting visual narratives whose cast of characters are objects in imaginary mimetic dramas.  What we play with often becomes what we are.

As is making a picture, imagining adults as children is a form of play.


Autumn in New England used to be my least favorite season.  At that time of year the leaves change colour—something most people enjoy.  I, however, did not.  Watching the leaves changing colors always reminded me of looking at a traffic light.  It’s odd but the colors were incongruous to me.  One autumn there was an exhibition of Winslow Homer watercolors in Connecticut so I drove up there to see it.  The roads were surrounded by bright changing trees the whole way.  When I finally got there and saw the watercolors I thought they were all very beautiful.  As usual one in particular caught my attention.  Homer had painted it 101 years earlier in Maine.  It was of two women walking through autumn woods with a black parasol.  It was not a large painting but it contained all those colours I’d seen on the drive up.

Driving home I noticed that autumn had suddenly become my favorite season.

We are the sticky stuff that joins together all the myriad information that constantly runs through our doors.

©Luigino Valentin

NYC 1998


An Essay in Four Parts

The Balcony

A horrible event occurred in September of 1972.  You may remember it.  At the Olympic Games in Munich Germany a group of athletes were suddenly taken hostage by terrorists.  23 hours later it ended with a lot of people being killed.

Because it was the Olympics plenty of cameras were on hand.  I watched it on television with my parents in Connecticut.  Beyond the curtain of politics and ideologies with which people attempt to justify their actions were concrete walls cameras could not see through.  What was happening behind them, where the hostages were being held, was left to imaginations spurred to fill both the gap of what we could not see and what I, as an eight-year-old child, could not understand.

A few months earlier I had seen a science fiction film named, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.”  Often inherent in science fiction is a grave view of the not too distant future—a prescience that as often becomes a sign of the times.  In other words, it says more about today’s concerns than tomorrow’s reality.  The film takes place in a prison-like complex where humans brutally train gorillas and oddly tall chimpanzees as servants.  The drama is of an ape named Caesar who hides his ability to speak for fear of being killed.  When indignation finally propels him to do so the apes discover their plight in his voice and it ignites a revolt.  The apes take up arms and the world is turned upside down.

In Munich what really struck me was a grainy black and white T.V. image of a dark figure on a balcony.  Although I did not know it then he was wearing a ski mask.

You see, the T.V. was calling him one of the “guerrillas.”

What lay hidden from the cameras became manifest in what I saw on that balcony.  I asked my father if this was really happening.  When he figured out what I was thinking he said, “No, not ‘Gor-illa’…’Guer-illa’.”  He tried to explain it but it made no difference.  Gorillas were holding people hostage and it really was happening.

While facts gradually usurped fictions they did not cast them out.  For us the terror of what actually happened that day in Munich is in our minds and in our ability to empathize with the people who were in that apartment complex.  When I recently went to the library to study the facts I found, in a newspaper on microfilm, photos of the Olympic Village closely resembling my memory of the scenery in the apes movies.  Rewinding the microfilm like a parallel line of life I noticed, in the same paper, another article.  It reported the first birth of a captive gorilla in the metropolitan area and the death of a captive gorilla in Phoenix.  A simple coincidence, yet by noticing it I was not so much reinforcing as repeating something I did in 1972.

Like a twig comes from a branch, how things look to us or how we feel about them is connected to what we’ve seen or experienced before.  We constantly search for precedents to help identify what lies before us.  Like breathing you don’t have to think about it to do it unless you want to take a deep breath.

This is pronounced when looking at pictures.  Unlike most things pictures have no other function than to look a certain way.  Also they have an air of intent about them.  Thus, in a museum, you are bound to hear, in your own mind or someone else’s voice, “it looks like” or “that reminds me of.”  It is not a peripheral aspect of art appreciation.  If you and I look at a picture which has been stripped of words in or around it what that picture suggests to us individually is all it is capable of.  And yet, that is a lot, especially if it has a similar effect on both of us.

The Study

In a scene from a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Holmes greets a man he’s never met before in the man’s study.  The man says something like, “Well Mr. Holmes, I’ve heard you are a great detective.  Do you know anything about me?”  Holmes proceeds to confidently list a great many things about the man.  The man is astonished.  When he asks him how he could know such minute details Holmes points out all the clear evidence around him and explains how he assembled it to create the astonishingly cohesive and accurate portrait that he does.

“Remarkable,” says the man.  “It’s elementary,” says Holmes.  It is not so much an explanation as a reminder.

We have five senses that constantly take in information and correspond with each other.  They routinely take in far more information than we can consciously process.  This leads some people to believe they actually have more than five senses.  Mr. Holmes is remarkable because he can solve a three-fold problem almost instantly.  How to be aware of what is around him, how to systematically process it all, and how to communicate it convincingly.  What is elementary about the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes, however, is that his abilities are not fictional.

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In Innsbruck

Not far from Munich is another place that hosted Olympic Games.  In Innsbruck there is a museum called the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum.  I visited there a couple of years ago.

The museum is filled with notable things, including a fine, almost corporeal, portrait by Rembrandt that may or may not be of his father.  Of all that was there, however, nothing had an impact on me like what I found in one of the first rooms I walked into.

It was a life-size crucifix of wood.  I think it was gothic.  In any event, it was old, unpainted, and simply carved; a stylized figure on a cross.  The wood itself had become so weathered, exposed, dry, cracked, and splitting that it also seemed tortured—although not by anyone’s hand.

Whether an expression of transcendence or humiliation, a crucifix is a loaded symbol.  But its presence is so ubiquitous, its use so often gratuitous, that what comes to mind when I see one is principally someone’s idea that bad things happen to good people.  My interest rarely goes beyond the craft.

This was wholly different.  It was as though I had turned a corner in a charming museum and found an actual corpse nailed to the wall.  It had such presence that I had to remind myself it was just a piece of wood much like I’d tell myself ‘It’s only a dream’ while having a nightmare.  I felt like a knowing bird encountering a scarecrow.

Years earlier I was walking by the New York Public Library.  Between the stone statue lions named Patience and Fortitude a card table was set up and people were being asked to sign a petition condemning torture in a Middle Eastern country.  Behind the table was a photo mounted to a piece of Fome-Cor.  I only glimpsed it for a second but I will never forget it.

It was actually four photos, stills taken from a documentary film.  The sprocket holes were visible.  In sequence they show a man’s arm being torn off at the shoulder by a chain attached to a motorcycle.  Being black and white, grainy, out of focus—like copies too many times removed from their original source—and shot at a distance, it suggested the conditions under which it was made.  This lack of artifice, this clumsiness, called cinéma vérité when exploited by film makers, was not cinema.  There was no reason to doubt it.

It is remarkable to me that as a work of art, that crucifix could affect me as much as those photos.  Whoever made it shared with Sherlock Holmes and all great artists an ability to see and abstract.  Using simple methods and materials that sculptor was able to touch me, condensing information like a dried sponge to be passed through the senses and gradually expand in the mind.  The art work was invested with a living quality initiating a dialog between viewer and artist as real as the dialog between our senses.

In many ways the world was different when that crucifix was made.  Where time fragmented and secularized people and beliefs, nature, in a parallel course, intervened on behalf of that cross, allowing it to coincide with its audience.  While the world has changed much, out biology has changed little.  This accounts for the long life of great art which is not powered by the batteries of fashion but by the sun.

There is as little reason to respect something simply for being old as there is to respect something simply for being new.  We respect what can touch and affect us as human.

I have seen young serious artists paralyzed by the thought that their work lacks relevance.  In a field dominated by an often esoteric virtue of newness they are nagged by the thought that what they are doing is simply atavistic.  That may be the case.  I don’t know.  But relevant to what?  To say to them that in art today everything is permissible is not to make it different from any other time in art history.  But to say that, just possibly, everything is equally relevant, is.


This summer I visited a friend in Denmark.  She had bought a farmhouse there to use as a summer home.  The place was beautiful and we had a great time.

One day in a nearby museum I found a book.  It contained reproductions of abstract paintings by a young Danish woman named Vibeke Tøjner.  I’ll say they looked like Per Kirkeby not because I think they were derivative but just to give you an idea.  Anyway, I thought they were very exciting so I asked the people at the museum if they had any of her paintings on view.  I wanted to see the real thing.  They did not but told us we might find some at a gallery in a town called Silkeborg.

I find when traveling it’s good to have a destination in mind.  The name of a place will suffice to conjure images creating expectations in whose absence is lost not only the potential for disappointment but the capacity of surprise.  To arrive at a destination enables us to measure the distance traveled in the displacement of ideas.  We decided to make an adventure of trying to find a real Vibeke.

We arrived in Silkeborg early one morning and parked the car.  I got out but my friend thought she’d parked too far from the curb and was going to move closer.  While she was doing that I went to look at postcards further up along the sidewalk.  Anyone who has traveled with me knows I love to buy postcards.

A few minutes later I was standing at one of those revolving card racks when I see my friend walk up behind a tall blond girl who was also looking at cards.  She grabbed the girl’s rear end and calmly said, “Do you want to have some breakfast babe?”

It did not occur to me then that the girl, from the back at least, not only looked like me but was dressed similarly.  I was just wondering how my friend knew this girl and if that was a Danish custom.  I had time to think this because when the girl turned around my friend looked right at her and was not immediately surprised.  It was only after she asked the girl to show her what cards she’d chosen that she herself became shocked.  Apologies, explanations, etc.

My friend later told me when she saw the girl’s face it was too embarrassing to believe it wasn’t me, but when she looked at the postcards in the girl’s hands, cards I would not have chosen, she could not deny her mistake.

Apart from the humor, what I found so interesting was that ultimately my friend identified me more by the ideas she had of me than by what I looked like.

After breakfast we found the gallery we were looking for, but at that moment they only had photos of Vibeke’s paintings on hand.

Luigino Valentin

NYC 1998 ©