New York

Helene Valentin

Max Hutchinson Gallery

It might as well be said at the outset that Helene Valentin’s paintings bear a vitiating resemblance to tie-dye fabrics, crushed velvet, and wrinkled satin. This is unfortunate since Valentin’s technique can at times be ingratiating and some of the paintings are compositionally more interesting than immediate associations might suggest. Her general format plays off an allover mottled ground against drifting rows of crisply contoured blotches or fractured lateral strokes. The contrast of these splintery tactile incidences with the blurred effusions of the overall field does induce some visceral excitement. But the effectiveness of figure-ground vibration is mitigated by usually banal color and tonal schemes—most often closely valued complementary oppositions such as pale cobalt against beige and milky orange, or lurid matings of reds, violets, blues, and black.

On close view, one notices the pains to which Valentin has gone to control the shimmering ground of smokey color veils. She has simulated with her brushwork the stain and bleed of watery pigment on unprimed canvas in a way reminiscent of the meticulous out-of-focus illusionism in Photo-Realist painting. But her laboriously deliberate technique doesn’t rescue the paintings from an all too obvious “stainerly” retread of the cubist grid, pushing and pulling space with diaphanous washes rather than planes, which is altogether less interesting. The warping and rending of this amorphous color space by jagged striations of opposing hues becomes a predictable effect and seems, on the whole, a finicky contrivance.

Valentin’s choice of titles (Winds and Hill, Time and Water, Wind Wings, etc.) and her previous outdoor projects (“painting” with colored smoke against the wall of a cliff) suggest the extent to which she alludes in her painting to natural forms and evanescent phenomena. Her works readily recall visions such as sunlight refracted on a rippling lake or wind-torn clouds revealing shreds of sky, without the assistance of literal imagery. But as paintings such pictorial fixings of ephemeral processes too often yield too little—monotonously lyrical textural effects. For all of their sensuousness of surface and ethereal “poetry,” Helen Valentin’s paintings lack the power of any metaphorical intention beyond tastefully imitating the patina of a morphological event. A natural process can become vital as art when it is selectively documented or demonstrated or dramatized (as she has possibly done in her photography, filmmaking and environmental process pieces). But in her painterly search for an “analogy” between art and nature she has either asked too little of herself or has gone too far—in any case, doing justice to neither.

Richard Lorber