The Pumpkin Festival and Other Portraits” is a show of large and small scale portraits in charcoal that Valentine made 1989-91. The large scale portraits drew me into surprisingly intimate conversations. Actually they are not exactly portraits, they are pictures, specific enough, probably, to be of individuals but my response to them was more like my response to characters in a novel than to portraits of people I don’t know.
With one exception, our main interaction consisted of an exchange of gazes, but I’ll start with the exception.
“JW1” is a tenderly studied picture of a young black man that I “recognize” because I see him every day, in several different incarnations, lounging, walking, flowing down the streets of my neighborhood, sometimes on a bicycle. Wonderfully shaped head with short hair, full lips, muscular arms with veins rippling beneath smooth velvety skin.
As I suggested, he doesn’t look at me and why should he, an older white woman who he doesn’t know personally? I’m outside of his field of vision that at the moment is turned inward, lost in a pleasant reverie. But I do look at him, a beautiful human being, the picture of health, living in the sunshine. Ah, youth!
Valentine has engineered or facilitated my series of responses to this and other portraits in the show by continuously shifting my attention to the surface of the paper and the lush blackness of the charcoal, details of the face and body and expression. I look at each button separately, the stripes in the shirt and then back to the arms, the lips, are the eyes closed or barely open? and so forth.
I hate to add anything to this picture, but these days, how can I not? This youth is in danger of never tasting the joys of middle and old age and this matters intensely. My generation has followed and added to a long series of missteps that will most likely send him to a battlefield or a jail, or in a best-case scenario for all of the young people of any race, put him in debt for an education that will be difficult to pay off with the jobs available plus we’ve screwed up the environment. Why can’t we take a good look at him and care more?
Two other portraits also engaged me in conversations unexpectedly similar: “The Pumpkin Festival” and “PH”. One is of a white 5 year old girl and the other is a picture of a black woman somewhere between 18 and 30. Valentine is doing something in both of them that makes their expressions and glances shift, adding an extra eye or facial angle in very subtle ways unlike a photographic double exposure. I’m very interested in the differences between my real experience and photography and photographed portraits suggest that the eyes rest together on my eyes whereas actually an exchange of glances seems to involve shifting the gaze from one eye to the other of the person you are looking at while they do the same thing. These pictures do that. (But I see that my photographs of them do not. Try to see them in person). Valentine also draws the attention away from the eyes to rest on an image of trees on their shoulders and somehow this doesn’t seem odd because when I look at the trees, I only look at the trees and then shift my attention to something else–a light in the distance, a trompe l’oeil shirt front, a lighter line that defines the woman’s face, the doll’s eyes which look away and the girl’s hands which are not very defined and yes very like the doll’s hands–and return to look at their eyes.
What is similar is that they both have a look of hopeful expectancy and at the same time they are self-contained. It is quite different to be self- contained at 5 and at 25 and I spend time thinking about this. The child is still in a child’s world, she hopes I will play and be nice and I wouldn’t want to let her down.
The woman is more knowing, more understanding, more aware of my flaws no doubt, it is wonderful to see that she still hopes for something of me and for me. I check this many times. Does she really have hope for me? It seems that she does. – CNQ
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