The weight of a tool is familiar — a handle nestled in hand, balanced or unwieldy, smooth or clunky. Through the handle, a tool transforms into an extension of ourselves, our will. It is a longer limb, stronger grip, or sharper edge. It is a mark of civilization, a symbol of work and progress. The primary tool in painting is a brush — but the brush is rendered useless in Vien Valencia’s Unpainting.
In a corner, two large canvases contain more than 80 worn-out brushes, melded onto the surface with paint or plaster. The handles stick out, reminding the viewer of the hand that struck them there, as though caught in the motion of painting, or stuffed in a bucket of paint in a garage. But they are still, permanently held in tension. Another canvas acts like a target, large sticks like fat arrows clump together in the center, stooping from gravity after flight through the air. The handles compel the viewer to grip — pencils, rulers, ping pong paddles, and toilet plungers are homogenized by this common denominator; their different purposes disappear, bound together by their ability to be handled, and by the force that put them there.
The compositions are tactile and corporeal, creating a live chiaroscuro with the objects casting haphazard shadows across the canvas and spilling over onto the wall. It is alive with movement — another canvas is covered by a sheet, where the invisible presence of a hand grabs its center and twists it, making its folds radiate outward. The lines are not made by strokes of darker paint, but by shadows cast by dips in the surface. Is it wrapping or unwrapping? It melts into the surface, sopping up a spill, covering it, containing the mess, or succumbing to it. A drop cloth or a burial cloth, it covers, hides. A piece of fabric constantly changes as it moves and as it is manipulated; it takes on the shape of whatever it drapes over in endless potential. But up close, the sheet seems hardened with plaster, turned into a sculpture, freezing it in the moment.
Building and dismantling are in conflict in the last piece, where scraps of wood are nailed, tied, and weighted down onto the canvas by mounds of cement. The ends are both connected and disconnected, bound but falling apart. It is both a product and byproduct, the inversion of making something of subjective ‘value’. They are attached without purpose—it is a compulsion.
The cable ties that hold them together are instant, temporary, utilitarian. The works are made of a mix of organic and inorganic materials: plastic paint and plastic ties, metal nails, wood, canvas. They are minimal, almost achromatic. The works are untitled. The objects are stripped down, raw, almost natural though most are man-made—urban driftwood—as if they were come about by chance. These are the supposed fallout from other projects, material in between, on the floor of a studio, jarring the cycle of production. Again, creating and creation merge, cluttering the line between workshop and work.
The materials, almost owed to chance, harken back to the era of humans as nomads, hunter-gatherers, dependent on the land, and with minimal means of production. The artist draws from the primal compulsion to gather what he comes across, and assemble to the dictates of its material properties. It submits to humans’ smallness. The large canvases are mere piles amidst the multitude of other constructions, contained within a few walls. It submits to humans’ helplessness and lack of real control. Shifting, uncertain, dwarfed by inevitable change. It submits to the contradiction—the human urge to create monoliths, monuments, constantly modifying and creating despite our smallness.
Unpainting is ultimately personal. It is borne from the artist’s surroundings and posture, his capability and intent. In his statement, Valencia describes it as his ‘articulations of changing, settling, moving, fixing, and dismantling things’. It records the artist’s action, energy, force. It is simply experience. It is a dramatization of the constant movement of objects, happenings, tensions, and contradictions. It resides within the propensity to create, but also to tear down.
Unpainting runs until August 10th at Underground Gallery.
Shireen Co is an artist, experimental cook (of leftovers), and mid-range chess nerd. Tap the button below to buy her a coffee:
Images courtesy of the writer.