Dino Valls is my favorite painter of all time. While his paintings seem disturbing, and perhaps even have a subtle sexual disturbance to them, I am drawn into them for deep contemplation, and never come out afraid or disgusted. I can actually feel them expand my consciousness, my perceptions about myself, the dialog between my conscious and subconscious. So naturally, when offered the opportunity to write an analysis of one of his pieces, I was excited. I’m re-printing here in hopes of not just sampling my more academic writings, but to stir interest in art, art analysis, art therapy, if not in Valls’ work itself.
The original oil painting, Noxa, by Dino Valls is the subject of this analysis.
Dino Valls is a contemporary painter. He was born in 1959 in Zaragoza, Spain, but he moved to Madrid in 1988, where he continues to live and work. Valls developed his passion for art as a child, watching his father draw and visiting local exhibitions and museums. Valls began drawing using pencil, color pen, ink, watercolor, charcoal, and pastels when he was a child. In 1975, when he was sixteen years old, he began experimenting with oil painting, self-teaching design, composition, and technique (“An Interview With Dino Valls”).
Valls attended medical school at the University of Zaragoza (aka, Saragossa), and in 1982 completed a degree in medicine and surgery. He continued to hone his skills in oil painting throughout his university studies.
Valls took a trip to Paris in 1977 and seemed to return with an inspiration for a more defined and personal subject matter for his paintings. In 1981 he had his first devoted exhibition of his work in Zaragoza, and he won an award for his paintings in 1982. His work started gaining attention and was requested for inclusion in collective gallery showings in Madrid. Immediately upon graduating with his medical degree, Valls began devoting himself full time to painting and developing himself as a professional painter.
Valls continued to gain recognition in Spain. He had his first devoted gallery showing in Madrid in 1987, and a year prior his work gained wider European exposure in a traveling collective exhibition of contemporary Spanish art. He enjoyed his first American exhibition in 1993, and had several exhibitions throughout the United States after (Kreibohm).
Valls has continued to paint, and his online gallery provides selected pieces and series in a timeline format, spanning from 1988-2014 (Valls).
Description of Noxa
Noxa is an original painting by Valls that was completed in 2006. Although his note for the piece in his online gallery indicates Noxa is an oil painting on 25cm by 25cm wood, Valls is well known for using layers of egg tempera overlaid by transparent oil glaze (Parker).
Noxa depicts a realistic young woman from the neck up. Her features are perhaps mildly androgynous (lack of make-up, indistinct hair length), but her thinned eyebrows, slightly pink cheeks, plump lips, and moist, emotional eyes seem to make her decidedly female. Her face is partially obscured by a red cloth that encircles her head so that she appears to be looking out from underneath it. The cloth itself is being pulled back from her face, as if it is being opened up by a variety of metal instruments (presumably stainless steel surgical instruments). One of the instruments, like a forceps, is holding a Polaroid-style photo, the corner of which is pushing into the cheek bone area of the female subject. The photo depicts an image of an individual, above the navel, who is covering his/her face with bent up arms, and is slightly turned away from the point of view of the photographer/painter/observer.
In terms of the composition of Noxa the lines are strongly defined by the contrast of the red fabric against the pale Caucasian skin of the subject. The lines are curved, with a slight diagonal positioning in the right side of the painting, drawing the eye around the face of the subject, and then away to the Polaroid. The dominant shape Noxa assumes is a slightly asymmetrical circular shape, created by the circular opening of the red fabric. The fabric consumes all the periphery of the subject, comprising more than 25% of the painting. Although textured, it can be viewed as negative space because it draws the eye inward to the rich details of the subject’s face, which make up the positive space. Assuming the color of the online digital representation is accurate, the color of Noxa is warm, with rich red hues. There is a direct light reflecting off the subject’s face, in particular her eyes. However, the color is somewhat dull and muted, creating a sedated mood. And finally, the painting has a rich texture, typical of realism.
Era and Style of Noxa
Because Noxa was painted in 2006 it falls in the postmodern era. Of the two, deconstruct-ivism and constructivism, Noxa is likely constructivist in nature, as interviews with Valls indicate he places high value on exploration of the psyche, and views art as a tool of expression for deep and meaningful themes (“Modern Art Theory: Postmodernism.”; Piowaty). However, the technique and style that Valls consistently uses in all his paintings is modeled after the Italian and Flemish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries- the Renaissance period (McIlvaine). Perhaps what distinguishes Noxa from the infamous Italian Renaissance painting Mona Lisa is Valls’ subject matter and treatment of the subject.
Some have referred to Valls as a surrealist (Casal-Data). Surrealism is a style characterized as “anti-rationalist” and “dreamlike” (“Surrealism”), but Noxa clearly does not meet this definition, as careful analysis produces a rational insight. Indeed, an analysis of Valls’ work described it as “a work at the service of reason or intellect” (“The Demiurge of Light”). Likewise, while Noxa represents qualities of realism, the treatment of the subject is in no way natural. Perhaps magical realism is a more concise sub-genre to describe Noxa.
Magical realism has been defined as, “an aesthetic style or genre in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality” (“Magical Realism”). Indeed, this seems to more correctly categorize all of Valls’ work.
However, because of the number of varied descriptions used to describe Valls’ work (Flemish, Italian Renaissance, realism, surrealism, etc.), his paintings can certainly be categorized as postmodern, not just because of the time period within which he paints, but also because one of the hallmarks of the postmodern era is the reworking and mixing of past styles (“Postmodern Art”).
Contemplation of Noxa seems to reveal that it represents a sort of unnatural birth, or more likely, exposure. The deep red cloth likely connotes a uterus. The cold, steel surgical instruments holding back the cloth hint at a surgical procedure, a cutting. Perhaps the uterus has been cut open to expose the fetus, the newly born subject.
The subject is a young woman, her face appearing vulnerable, sad, soft and childlike, yet her eyes convey a strength, a life force. She is directly looking at the viewer with bold and piercing eyes. As powerful as her expression is, Noxa, like all of Valls’ work, is likely not a portraiture, but an allegory for something Valls is trying to convey through this painting.
The Polaroid-like photo rests on the subject’s face, its sharp corner poking into her skin enough to slightly displace it. This feels imposed, as if she is trapped, and/or is being forced. It also evokes a sense of pain and/or discomfort- an emotion confirmed by the slight redness and moisture in her eyes, as if she has or is about to cry. The Polaroid-like photo being pressed into her face also contains the image of what seems to be a female. Perhaps it is her- a projection of her own self. Her arms are bent up, covering her face almost as if in a fetal position. It’s as if her body language is saying, “go away, leave me alone.”
The juxtaposition of the girl in the photo who is trying to hide behind her freed arms with the main subject who appears powerless and unnaturally exposed, the former pressing in on the latter causing pain and discomfort, seems to hint at the Jungian archetype of the shadow, or personal unconscious, and the persona, or conscious ego self (Diamond). Carl Jung, a staple in psychological theory, said of the shadow, “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance” (cited in “Carl Jung and the Shadow”).
While it would seem in such a view that the Polaroid girl represents shadow because she is hiding, avoiding, much smaller, and not central to the imagery of Noxa, it is more likely that she represents the ego self, the persona. The persona is the aspect who does not want to be exposed, who is resistant to bringing forth shadow aspects into the conscious mind. But why would the ego self be causing pain and discomfort to the shadow self when at first assessment it would seem logical to be the other way around- that the shadow self in all its obscurity would cause discomfort to the conscious mind? When one’s ego does not allow oneself to accept those aspects of the shadow self, denying self, one is in essence self-injuring the psyche, creating and maintaining a split. It’s as if the exposed subject, the shadow self is saying, “Yes, here I am. Look at me. I am the innocent and vulnerable you, and by you refusing to acknowledge me, turning away and hiding from me, you are causing me discomfort.” Perhaps Noxa longs to be integrated, whole.
One of the more curious aspects of Noxa is that the exposure of the shadow self appears unnatural, as represented by the surgical instruments and the implication of the uterus, or birth. Is Valls implying that exposure of the shadow to the persona is always an unnatural, surgical-like experience, or is he implying that this is one way by which shadow becomes exposed?
When we consider Cesarean as a surgical process for removing a fetus from the uterus it begs more questions than answers, as generally a C-section isn’t performed unless there is an emergency or great risk in vaginal birth for mother or child. Natural birth occurs in a process, a slow and rhythmic pushing out. Similarly, many Jungian scholars claim that the “acknowledgement of the shadow must be a continuous process throughout one’s life” (“Shadow (psychology)”). Is Valls telling us in Noxa that there is some sort of existential crisis which prompts an unnatural birthing of the unconscious into the conscious?
Most likely because Valls is a contemporary painter in an often cynical post-modern era, there is no known thorough academic analysis of Noxa. There do exist various examinations of Valls’ work as a whole, with reference of specific paintings used only to illustrate a point, but none focus fully on Noxa in particular. So further discussion in this essay will consider the totality of Valls’ work, including but not exclusive to Noxa.
Much of the discussion that does exist of Valls’ works characterizes it as “void” and “meaningless”, even though skillfully and technically superior. Interestingly, in a scathing critique of new realism, Miles Mathis includes Dino Valls in his review. Mathis states, “Dino Valls is another who can’t find a meaningful subject, instead choosing to deal in surrealistic ironies and paradoxes. His technique is often amazing, but it is in the service of absolutely nothing.” He further states about Valls work, “[It is] not really about anything beyond clever combination and mildly shocking juxtaposition. The emotional content is zero.”
Similarly, cartoonist and blogger Charley Parker writes:
The common theme I take away from [Dino Valls’] work is the treatment of people, and their parts, as objects. Body parts, arms, legs, hands, heads, are treated as parts, as if pieces of department store dummies or sculptural casts, but painted as very much living flesh. These suggestions are mixed with medical imagery, religious iconography, references to medieval and Renaissance painting and an undercurrent of sexuality, though the latter seems more intended to disturb than to arouse (Parker).
While Parker’s treatment of Valls’ work is more forgiving than Mathis’, Parker also seems to debase Valls’ work into just “body parts”, with very little meaning beyond this.
It’s interesting that Parker implies a detached objectification of Valls’ subjects, as academic Michael Pearce has concluded that all of Valls’ work is deeply allegorical, and that his subjects don’t represent traditional portraiture or realism (Pearce). Pearce argues that the subjects themselves are not the young girls in Valls’ paintings, who represent a broader collective unconscious, but that the subjects are actually the situations depicted in Valls’ paintings, which serve as allegory for the human experience. Perhaps the allegorical nature of Valls’ human subjects is what Parker and Mathis cue in on, perceiving them as detached, objectified, and void of emotion. And if so, these perceptions could arise into the conscious mind, but viewers fail to take the further step in analysis of the work in relation to the human psyche.
In analysis of Valls’ work an online article entitled The Demiurge of Light states, “….although we all are dumbfounded because of the realism and meticulousness of his works, Dino [Valls] insists that it is not form which is his goal, but the ideas, the meaning: it is work at the service of reason or intellect. This urges us to understand him through a conceptual language.”
Similarly, Pearce, a professor of art and a painter himself, offers a thorough treatment of Valls’ work. He says, “Valls hides his meaning in plain sight, invites you to do some traveling to get to your destination.” Indeed, unlike some of the Renaissance and Gothic painters who embedded objects within their designs with intention to hide them, Dino Valls does not hide. Pearce goes on to say of Valls’ work, “The closer you look, the more detail you find; a single loose hair here, a discrete label there; layers of indications, both direct and subtle, that there is something hidden here, something worth learning.”
But worth is a subjective value. While Pearce may look upon Noxa as holding a rich allegorical worth, inviting a deeper exploration, some critics such as Mathis find little worth.
Allegory is a conceptual language, and is an exclusively human form of expression. Many classics in literature are allegorical in nature, intended to express complex ideas and experiences that would be more difficult to express in direct ways. The situation of the allegory itself provides relatable insight that adds dimension, but calls on higher intellect, requiring skills of decoding, deciphering, logic, and pairing. Therefore, allegory itself holds inherent value as being an expression of human experience than can only be understood through higher intellectual function. The work of Dino Valls is clearly in service to the human experience.
Mathis’ belief that Valls’ work is in service to nothing might be faulty for two reasons. First, Mathis assumes there is no allegory, that the subjects of Valls’ paintings are mere representation of realistic portraiture with surrealist treatment, and that their treatment is intended for nothing more than “mild shock.” Mathis states that, “Unfortunately [Valls] always has to play some painterly game on [the subject’s] bodies, nullifying any effect they might have if painted directly and honestly” (Mathis). But when directly asked to characterize his style, Valls states his style is “A symbolic intellectualized figurative and not realistic projection of an unconscious content (that I perceive that coincides with the collective)” (Parentela).
Second, Mathis nearly contradicts his first argument that Valls’ work is devoid of meaning when he admits:
If Valls is making some statement about modern sociopolitics, it is one I am not even interested enough to pursue. I am not interested in manufactured psychological or sociopolitical lessons, especially those revealed by surrealism. I find this categorically shallow, like the faux paradoxes of Escher. High art is not about games and puzzles, or about unwrapping faux paradoxes. It may be about psychology, in a way, but it should be a psychology of emotions, directly revealed, not about surrealistic puzzles. These puzzles have a place, and are sometimes interesting as article illustrations or the like. But $100,000 paintings should hit higher levels of emotional discourse and subtlety.
Not only is Mathis in error when he categorizes Valls’ work as surrealism, he makes it clear if there is a prize, he is not interested in working for it- he wants his art to be direct and evoke immediate conscious emotions. And Noxa clearly does not fail to evoke emotional discourse and subtlety if one is truly examining, as evidenced by other more scholarly reviews.
Fernando Castro Florez, a professor of aesthetics and art theory in Madrid states of Valls’ work:
We could try to understand Dino Valls’ aesthetics as a form of meditation on the status of today’s subject. His paintings are reflections where anxiety has settled down, along with the painful processes of a split personality. In fact, the darkest beast lies within us. The most beautiful, even “heavenly” bodies are wounded and, through the mirror of reflection, bestow their questions upon us. It is about images in aversion, whereas faces impose the enormous, or even better, a Medusa-like kind of gaze. We are unable to escape from the disturbed or upset sight of the figures that Dino Valls paints, these eyes are focused to something that we are yet to understand, as if they expect something from us that we are unable to provide. Their symbolisms constitute allegories of the subconscious, define pulses superficially, allude to the process of transformation, and recapture the meaning of a thought that exceeds the reticulation of the rational.
While Mathis implies that Dino Valls’ works, including Noxa, is not of the subject and compositional quality to be considered high-brow art, it is likely that Mathis is taking a surface view of the works, and is failing to understand the meditative qualities that Florez perceives.
Art is very personal not just to the artist, but to the observer as well. Contrary to Mathis’ assumption that Noxa is shallow and devoid of any meaning, when intently meditated upon Noxa invites us in to explore our own inner experiences in relationship to ourselves, asking us questions which only the individual can answer.
Catherine Coleman, museum curator states:
[Valls] does not portray the unique and instantaneous moment of the exterior world. He presents it idealized and stable in order to compare it with the constantly changing interior world; the interiors and imagined scenes, the attrezzo of his works serve as the background for the interior, spiritual dimension. There is a slow evolution from the scenario filled with motifs towards a starkness, a deprivation of secondary elements. We shall see how the artist manipulates these scenarios as containers that reflect the interior psychic state.
Clearly Valls’ lack of emotion in his human subjects in his paintings is purposeful, intended to move us beyond their situational treatment and into a deeper analysis of meaning and relevance, where the real emotion may lie. His work is not indicative of the absurdity and free-associative chaos of surrealism, which is wholly subconscious and fails to offer direction. Indeed, Noxa seems to tease out the subconscious (shadow) through the conscious exploration of self and meaning through her representative experience. She offers a path- a path to recognize our own shadow, our own pain in the duality, the longing for integration of the parts of self.
“The Demiurge of Light” points out that “Dino Valls does not flee from his reality; rather he tries to unravel the essence of everything. He tries to find answers that only are in our soul, where the origin of all things is to be found.”
If the scholarly analysis is true, then Noxa is an experience, a personal and deeply human experience, but one which may not represent a single experience, but rather a universal experience. Noxa digs at the psychology of human growth, our relationships with ourselves. Valls says that, “One of the basic themes in my work is the duality in conflict, the struggle for the integration of the opposites, as a process of totalization of the human being. Simultaneously, my painting is to me the mystic process that I follow to achieve my own integration” (Piowaty). This concept of duality and integration is completely consistent with Jungian theory (“Duality: Opposition and Sequence in Cycles”), which adds validation to the analysis of Noxa in terms of the duality of shadow and persona, and the discomfort in the awareness of both in the conscious mind, while they remain separate.
In summary, Noxa carries an inherent theme of the human experience and concept of self. Contrary to what some critics suggest, the painting represents far more than a sexualized figurative portrait of an emotionless girl having absurd surrealistic treatments imposed on her. From careful analysis of the painting itself, and compared with scholarly insight into the entirety of Dino Valls’ work, it seems probable that Noxa specifically represents the experience of the split self- the shadow and the persona in Jungian psychology. It represents the longing to be integrated, the painful conscious awareness of the disintegration, and perhaps some sort of external event that prompts an existential crisis, abruptly revealing this underlying tension in the psyche. It is a rich painting, worthy of meditative contemplation, and many scholars recognize its’ tremendous value, even amongst the critics.
“An Interview With Dino Valls.” The Original Van Gogh’s Ear Anthology. 23 May 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. <http://theoriginalvangoghsearanthology.com/2013/05/23/an-interview-with-dino-valls/>.
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Casal-Data, Victoria. “Dino Valls Uses Techniques of the Spanish Masters for Surreal Ends.” Hi-Fructose. Hi-Fructose: The New Contemporary Art Magazine. 19 May 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. <http://hifructose.com/2014/05/19/dino-valls-uses-techniques-of-the-spanish-masters-for-surreal-ends/>.
Coleman, Catherine. “Evolution and Change…”. For monograph, Dino Valls: Ex Picturis, Mira Editores. 2001.
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