Female nudity in art has always been controversial, and Winnipeg artist Andrew Valko's paintings are no exception.
The women in Valko's haunting paintings are always either naked or in their underwear. They feature ample breasts, drum-tight stomachs and glowing skin. The women are so realistic, they could walk off the canvas. Painted primarily from the vantage of heterosexual male desire -- the often-discussed "male gaze" -- they travel in the realm of voyeurism and fantasy.
Why the single-minded focus on the nude female form? Valko challenges the assumption the nudity is the message, suggesting some people may be missing the real narrative in his work.
"Female nudity is not the core theme," said Valko, who will appear to discuss his work on July 5 at Art Talk-Art Walk at the Free Press News Caf©. "Some of the nudity in the work is there to support the narrative of the paintings. Through my work, I am making a comment about our cultural practice of objectification rather than becoming just another example of it."
Valko paints women in various degrees of exposure, in pre- or post-coital hotel rooms, writing lovesick lipstick messages on bathroom mirrors, or taking naked Polaroids of themselves. Bathed in filmic light, these private moments feel desperate and uncomfortably vulnerable. Valko paints celebrities, too, where larger-than-life faces of sex symbols Angelina Jolie or Marilyn Monroe shine down from drive-in theatre screens onto the desolate prairie below.
But Valko does not let us enjoy the escape, doesn't let us live in the fantasy undisturbed. He shows us a Hollywood love scene but then reminds us where we are, just past the Perimeter on the way out to Headingley. What might be titillating about the work is tempered by the fact there is palpable emotional tension in every scene.
Though the woman in Holiday Inn Afternoon lies on the bed in her bra and see-through panties, her partner, fully clothed, turns his back to her. There is unhappiness, anger, rejection, and loads of consequence. The series about young women undressing for webcams is at first glance as provocative as any soft-porn image. Awash in the blue glow of the computer screen, these young women are supple, voluptuous and brazen. At second glance, the paintings are lonely and sad, making a dark comment about a disturbing cultural trend.
Central to Valko's images is the hotel room as backdrop. These rooms bring a certain moodiness to his paintings that, it seems, would not be present if the women and their partners were portrayed in a bedroom. Not surprisingly, the hotel room is a deliberate device for the artist.
"I feel travel/ hotel rooms remove you from your everyday hustle-bustle and distractions of everyday life," he said. "You are sitting in this motel room with your significant other, no diversions, no escape, with a moment of truth, good or bad. Time out of space."
A lot of art requires its viewers to perform near-impossible mental tricks. But because Valko's work is painted in a realistic style, and because he paints people, it is immediately knowable. We can recognize ourselves in the tension of his scenes, in what we desire and in what we fear.
If you look at the paintings and simply like or hate them, nothing is gained. But if you look even a few moments longer, and think about why it is you are reacting in a particular way, you may learn just how deeply interactive good art can be, even if controversial.
Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist, writer and host of Art Talk-Art Walk, an interactive art lecture series hosted by the Free Press News Caf© on the first Friday of every month