Realism and abstraction intersect as Andrew Valko paints the light and texture of real life.
By Amy Karlinsky
“Alot of people think that when you are doing realist painting, there’s no abstraction. In fact, it’s all abstraction.”
Visiting with Winnipeg art collectors not too long ago, I noticed the light-filled surface of a flat-screen television imbued with saturated and luminous colours beckoning from the other room. As I approached, I realized it wasn’t a TV screen, but the hyper-realistic and jeweled night-time surfaces of an Andrew Valko painting. It was the quintessential art experience from classical times — the confusion of the painted surface for some other object in real life. Painters call this trompe l’oeil, or a literal “fooling of the eye.”
Born in Czechoslovakia, Valko’s degree in art and design from Red River College in Winnipeg included daily model drawing. The emphasis on accuracy, observation and technique has left its mark. Later studies in Japan in wood block printing catalyzed the artist’s interest in printmaking and in combining paint and print media. His current paintings are acrylics on incised wooden panels.
I caught up with Valko in his music-filled, book-lined studio in the Wolsely neighbourhood. His retrofitted garage painting studio houses a drawing table, library, numerous easels, slide projector, computer, projector screen, assorted tables, chairs and paint pots — a tidy and organized reflection of Valko’s sense of order, process and depth. A member of Site Gallery, an artist’s cooperative, Valko is well known for his cheeky and brilliant prints, and the often amusing anecdotes that accompany these. The annual production of a print related to the Asian zodiac, a tradition Valko began when he and his wife Julia Lam had a child, are particularly coveted prizes in the art community.
But it’s his meticulous paintings that have garnered recent attention. Increasingly, the artist has devoted himself to rendering a big chunk of “real life” in paint. Capturing the specific textures and colours of electric light, wooden siding or the prairie night air has become something of an obsession. Valko does not shy away from difficult formal problems. He notes, “If I have to paint some grass, I might look to see how another painter solved that problem.” He adds: “For the last couple of years I have been working on a certain colouration. If I walk outside and it is cold and foggy, I can lay out the colours.”
Valko talks about his evolving art form.
“In the 1980s I went to Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Japan. In Tokyo, I would work for four or five months with a master print maker. I did that three or four times. My painting is based on accurate drawing. I’d transfer the drawn image onto the panel with carbon paper. To create relief, I’d router out parts of the image in the back lane for later painting. It was physical and I had to guess at certain things. It became restrictive. I finally stopped relief carving and began linear carving. I inscribe the line with a Japanese carving tool. It creates grooves that catch little bits of light. I carve into it first, then gesso it. I use acrylics and layer thin washes on the panes. I combine this with a cross hatching technique, like with egg tempera. I make it dark then lighten it up. It doesn’t work the other way round. I have spent years figuring out how these things work.”
Do you think of your work in relation to other artists or schools?
“Different artists or personalities lead to different styles. I am not primarily a realist. A lot of people think that when you are doing a realist painting, there’s no abstraction. In fact, it’s all abstraction. I paint the light, not the objects. I want it all to be there but it has to have content, composition, colour use, subtlety and beauty. Beauty is very important. I want the painting to be good on all levels. Like a craftsmen or builder, you have to start with a foundation. I am interested in how painters have solved certain things — how to paint grass or skin.”
Valko’s painstaking attention to form and technique is balanced by an exploration of themes drawn from contemporary culture. Valko explains, “I have major themes such as the swimming pool series, the motel series, the drive-in movie screens, and women with weapons. I have become interested in the prairie landscape. I love the sky and the light, and the small town in the middle of nowhere.” Valko’s subjects almost always include the figure within an architectural setting. He notes: “I keep a file of slides. I’ll get an idea and go round and take images. I get ideas all the time but have certain themes that appeal to me. I have sketchbooks where I do drawing. I develop the characters and story and put it together. I might have a model come in.”
The female form, nude or semi-nude, is a reoccurring presence, often represented within the pleasure grounds of travel and escape. These sites of pleasure are fraught with danger, anxiety or detachment. “A lot of my work is painted in night light, a time of melancholy and transitions. I hardly ever paint a daytime picture. There is more mystery and a suggestion of menace that could be real.” Sometimes, these sites of pleasure or escape turn into scenes of unexpected loneliness and abandonment. The anticipated encounter in the get-away motel becomes a banal engagement with the television. The drive-in movie parking lot is empty as Marilyn Monroe, Bella Lugosi or John Wayne light up the night sky. In one piece, a disaffected adolescent looks out from the claustrophobic and flat land ticket booth, dreaming, one imagines, of elsewhere. Valko’s references to the mass media — the drive-in movie theatre, the Hollywood cinema, the Polaroid camera, the television, or the computer — distinguishes his work from painters who emphasize realistic effects but who paint scenes of nature unimpeded by technology. Comparisons to other Canadian painters such as Alex Colville, Christopher Pratt and Eric Fischl come to mind. Like the drive-in movie screens that populate his paintings, Andrew Valko has set his sights high.
Andrew Valko is represented by: Douglas Udell Gallery, Edmonton and Vancouver; Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art, Calgary; and SITE Gallery, Winnipeg. An exhibition of Andrew Valko’s new paintings runs May 7 to 21, 2005, at the Douglas Udell Gallery, Edmonton.
Amy Karlinsky is a Winnipeg-based writer and teacher.