The inert silence of the “Anónimos”.
The photographic gaze constructs an image of reality from the analysis of its fragments. The photographic gaze works with time, confronts it to look at it. His gaze not only stops time, it constructs it in a different way; it is an invention in which the possible is permanently renewed.
Valentín Vallhonrat’s approach to analysis has developed an extreme sharpness of synthesis. Not so much as the culmination of a process but as an effect of condensation of emotions and sensations through a metaphorical mechanism. His images, especially those belonging to the series The Dream of an Animal and Black Mirror, analyse dissected animals, objects, the inanimate or the representations of the living in sculptures, mannequins or anatomical models, in order to develop an emotional trompe l’oeil in which a photographic fiction of illusion manifests itself from the shades of light or textures. These two series seem to develop with the rhythm of a story.
“Anónimos” is the immediately successive work, which appears as an extension and intention of the approaches of the previous series. The object is no longer representations, sculptures or animals dissected and prepared to express, but the very physical body of the animals, inert and devoid of life, abandoned to their own fate in death. This series is constructed as a change of register in front of Black Mirror, although it conserves an analogous intentionality of the look: to discover the imprecise time in which sensations and emotions are suspended in an oscillation of fragments, to trap in the image the ultimate sense of reality from its shades.
In the various portraits of dissected monkeys, the passionate, expressive and almost human aspects were underlined. In Anonymous the animal is presented in its most stark corpse state, in a way that refers to food, and to the dispassionate familiarity of death through animal food. It is a series constructed with slowness, meditated, with the wait that demands a work that deals for the first time with the dead as death.
But also with the speed to which a time already stopped obliges and that nevertheless advances decomposing, crushing in the putrefaction of the matter the appearances of the alive thing.
While Valentín Vallhonrat was making this photographic series, he began the production of the video titled “Espacio para la experiencia. El video ilumina la fotografía” (Space for the experience. The video enlightens the photography) in which in slow motion he collected the images of lambs exhaling the mist of their breath like a cloud of fog in the cold of dawn with the snout next to the camera or the bleating that moves the head of the animal in a powerful stertor of life. These are two aspects of the same concern that tries to delimit the limits between life and death. Valentín Vallhonrat treats dead animals and their fragments as if they were pictorial portraits, calibrating the possibilities of their volume and the expressiveness of the textures of skinned skin against a black and uniform background.
“Anónimos” is a brutal contemporary reformulation of the “bodegón” (still life), and in it one perceives the sharp and clear echoes of the warnings of the memory of death (memento mori) of the Baroque vanitas of the Golden Age.
It is precisely this connection with the idea of death and the caducity of life that gives spiritual greatness and mystical depth to the Spanish Baroque still life. The objects that it displays before the eyes are generally small, humble, banal, ordinary products of the countryside or of hunting, in which neither luxuries nor refinements for the palate are condensed. There is no allusion in them to ostentation or opulence such as occurs in flamenco still lifes. The bottoms generally open up to lush landscapes of vegetation among heavy purple curtains.
The Spanish still life does not pretend to warn only against the vanity of earthly riches, but in a deeper way against the expiration of life, against the perishable. Humble life is also subjected to the implacable rhythm of death and time. Life, therefore, is the most exalted of luxuries and pleasures, and an idea of the dead, the inert and immobility is constructed in front of it.
Perhaps for this reason the atmosphere of Spanish Baroque painting is dense and has a thickness that can almost be felt with the look and touch, even invites to be torn with a gesture of the hand, as if that way could touch what can not be said with words.
Valentín Vallhonrat takes up again in this series the structure of Sánchez Cotán’s bodegones, and at the same time assumes an interpretation of his reflection on the precariousness and expiration of life, in the form of a meditation on death. The window or cupboard that opens onto a black space with a background characteristic of the still lifes of the Spanish Carthusian monks, adapts to a photographic scheme.
Sánchez Cotán prefers to use fruit and vegetables in his bodegones, and sometimes introduces game birds such as the francolín, a species of partridge that is already extinct, which appears in several paintings hung or the birds, thrushes and goldfinches, lined up and tied to a reed. The death is expressed in the immobility of the animals, their condition of corpses turns them into demadejadas forms as the suspended francolín or rigid as the birds. However, in order for life to maintain an echo of presence, Sánchez Cotán eludes representing the plucked animals or showing the traces of the violence of death, that’s why his meditation contains a serenity and a contention that opens to the spiritual. In a way his gaze is almost more philosophical than pictorial, and tends to establish a silent atmosphere away from expressive dramatisms.
Another Baroque painter such as Mateo Cerezo will approach the brutality of the animal corpse in compositions whose titles clearly allude to the food destination of the objects represented: in “Bodegón de cocina” (Kitchen´s still life) two heads of lamb and a large piece of meat appear on a table and next to fruits and vegetables, while in Bodegón de caza y cocina a plucked chicken appears accompanied by other birds and a rabbit yet to be skinned. Goya will also explore the dramatic characteristics of the lamb’s head in a still-life, currently in the Louvre Museum, which took place during the crucial years of the Napoleonic wars between 1808 and 1812. The lamb’s head has an intense dramatic charge: it is very bony; it is exhibited in markets with bloody traces and makes it possible to guess very clearly the shape of the skull, which is like a monstrous distortion of the human skull. The lamb’s head contains implicitly a wild evocation of violence and death.
Valentín Vallhonrat distances himself from naturalism by using black and white, which removes the colour of blood and attenuates the contrasts of bones, skin and flesh, but assumes it as a representation. Certainly, although in a dramatic and breathtaking diptych he tackles the dialogue between two heads of lamb that seem to float in a space of black density, he avoids a formal treatment from the violent, by relating both stark heads in a dialogue of frozen gestures and empty glances.
Amidst the underlying drama, death slips like a fragment of lost life. Probably there is no violence, no pathos either, but there is a tragic and terrible vision. In spite of this, he remains close to Sánchez Cotán in what is the formal treatment, in synthesis, in the choice of fragments that still refer to life even though the animals are dead. In the same way that Sánchez Cotán keeps his dead birds feathered, Valentín Vallhonrat uses black and white as a way of keeping the “skin” of his animals. Lamb heads work almost like masks. Masks of a horror that is accentuated from the images in the video, in which the lamb screams.
The philosophical character of the meditation on the precariousness of Sánchez Cotán’s life reappears in Anonymous in a deferred manner, through other complementary contrasts marked by the photographic fragment: austerity and synthesis, phantasmagoria and representation, silence and immobility.
The drama is tragic but unfolds in extreme formal containment.
The images of pig ears, functioning as flowers or plants, resemble vegetables. The heads are never complete, and the skin does not allow one to guess the metric shape of the skull. The skinned rabbit seems to have taken on a sudden life and its body, even without a head, contains a movement, as if it were running again. Despite the harshness of death, the images of Anonymous express, beyond the meditative aspect, a tenderness for the loss of life: the anonymous could have been a synonym for innocent. Tenderness and affection for the life that ceases, for the inert solitude of death.
Santiago. B. Olmo