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Heavy weight exhibition: Valerio and Tomasula at USF
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne’s highest profile exhibition currently is the University of Saint Francis’ show “ James Valerio: Recent Paintings and Drawings” which also happens to be the first in the school’s current year of exhibitions. Valerio is a master of the meticulous photorealistic or superrealistic style of art, which came to great attention in Great Britian and America in the late sixties and early seventies. Some better-known artists such as Chuck Close or Duane Hanson exemplify this style.
Valerio was born in Chicago and has been a lifelong resident there and teaches at Northwestern University at Evanston. Valerio studied and received both his BFA and MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then he has received numerous grants and fellowships, is in some of our nation’s most important public collections of art, and as USF’s press release states, “has participated in over 200 group exhibitions and has held 25 solo exhibitions across the country.” On its own, that is an amazing feat, and when coupled by the inconceivable amount of detail and time spent on each piece, Valerio’s accomplishments become almost heroic.
Valerio is probably best known for his large-scale landscapes, his still lifes and his portraits done in oil, and there are many examples of that work in the show. But Valerio’s pencil drawings seemed to reach out and catch far more attention. “Pat” a pencil drawing, approximately two feet by one and a half feet, was instantly mesmerizing. This portrait is of a woman, looking off and wearing an almost oddly three dimensionally rendered sweater. The image was so finely executed, you can see the stray filaments coming off of each strand of thread, and it is as if you could feel the pattern and weave if you put out your hand.
“From the Window” gives a better impression of what Valerio is known for. It’s a far reaching landscape oil painting, quite large, of a cityscape from the viewpoint of a window a few stories off the ground. In the foreground is the window’s ledge, on which a potted plant rests, and in the background Valerio’s native Chicago skyline spreads across the total horizon. Remarkable almost for is mundanely soothing composition and optical narrative, this image feels more like a loose memory which could have been from childhood, or a movie, or completely fabricated. The inverse of a postcard, it gives a hazy impression something like nostalgia. Upon further inspection, there are pockets of dynamism; for instance, the texture and lighting effects on the leaves of the potted plant almost dance on the images’ surface, and an optical effect involving perspective makes the eye play in the opposite corner in an effort to figure out whether the two gray rectangles sending the eye to the right edge of the painting is the window’s edge or the street below. All of these subtleties and nuances are further demonstrations of Valerio’s virtuoso mastery over the field of painting.
A third intriguing piece included in this show was “Tom’s Choice,” a haunting portrait of a man who has piercing blue eyes, and is wearing a floral printed button up shirt which nearly matches and is quietly repeated in the wallpaper behind him. The composition of the painting has a confining effect on the viewer, between the close proximity of the figure, the other objects in the room; the closed blinds Venetian blinds in the background of the painting, and the contrast of the open window closer to the viewer filled with the branches of trees in a lush forest.
While Valerio is certainly the star of this exhibition, both Maria Tomasula and David Carpenter are also being shown in USF’s Goldfish Gallery and hallway. Maria Tomasula, a highly respected painter in her own right, actually studied under Valerio during her master’s degree at Northwestern University. Tomasula is currently an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame, and is represented by galleries in Chicago and New York.
Tomasula’s work would be best described as a hybrid of Surrealism and Magic Realism, both styles popular in the middle of the first half of the 20th century. Her practice is based upon photorealism like Valerio, but her wonderfully inventive sense of composition and the conceptual structure of her paintings lend themselves to the fantastic. Many times her paintings contained pristine representations of objects, then in a collage-like style composes them into spirals, chandelier-looking structures, and beautiful patterns.
“My Ava” is the strongest painting in this collection. It is of commendable size and is oil on panel. Though there aren’t any explicit clues as to the title’s meaning in the image, it evokes something of an elegiac response with the nearly vanitas feeling and subject matter. The background of the paintings is a black field, on top of which an array of crystals is arranged in something like a chandelier pattern. On top of this is a collection of various objects, including a flayed pomegranate fruit, kiwi fruits, and a small cherubic statue, all following a similar pattern to the crystals. The painting’s lighting is immaculate, with an inner illumination to most objects. The surfaces of Tomasula’s paintings are a visual thrill in themselves. Their gorgeous and supple colors are coupled with a finish, which makes them look like liquid which is for the moment still.
Both Valerio and Tomasula’s work will be up in the Weatherhead and Goldfish galleries, located in the Rolland Art Center at the University of Saint Francis until October 26th.
Also don’t miss out on USF’s new Lupke Gallery, which is in the new building across campus at 2702 Spring Street. The Lupke family has been very generous to the arts community in Fort Wayne and the current show has selections from their family collection. It will be up until Oct. 12th.