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More than meets the eye

To try to discuss Barbara Valenta's sculpture on the basis of one black-and-white photograph is like trying to communicate the quality of flight through the example of a stuffed bird. But, seen is their proper setting and without prejudice, these constructions of wood, cloth, and string emerge as the quietly exultant and life-affirmative works of art they were intended to be.

They are gentle things, close in spirit to kites and sails and other things which fly. But, held fast to the walls on which they hang, they cannot fly, flutter, or move. Their existence is defined, or so it seems, by the shape each of them takes, by their particular combination of materials, their size, and their color. And yet they don't seem static or lifeless, or just pieces of decoration. In some odd way the dom move outward, even seem to expand and grow.

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These sculptures are made of things we can touch, pick up, rub against, caress, and so are real and of this world. They are also well built and sturdy, and hold their own in a world of many things clamoring for our attention. They are attractive and look good on a wall. But, once all that is said, we gradually realize as we study them that that is only the beginning of what they are really all about.

We become aware that these sculptures were not designed as static objects but as energizers of the spaces around them, that their function is to pulsate, to radiate energy and movement outward and beyond. That their attractiveness is only a momentary thing utilized to catch our attention. And that, real and present as they may be, their truer purpose is to point, to indicate, and to suggest.

But, point to what? And what do they indicate and suggest?

My first impression when I saw these works was that they were religious art, that they had to do with a vision of spiritual growth and expansion, that each one was like a "station" on the way to the artist's ultimate realization of himself. And that impression was strengthened as I studied and identified with them. They are gentle statements of affirmation. They are icons of a search for greater meaning, and exist serenely within the heart of a spiritual storm.

These sculptures need plenty of space within which to breathe because their spheres of influence extend to distances as much as ten times their greatest width and height. The piece reproduced on this page is only 2 3/4 feet high, but it requires a wall at least ten feet high for its full impact to be felt. The entire wall and even the space beyond become extensions of these fragments of wood and cloth. A kind of gentle but controlled choreography takes place similar to what happens when a pebble is dropped into a still pond. Our eyes and our sensibilities follow the directions indicated and the movements activated by this projecting stick, by that intersections of wood and cloth, or by that set of parallel lines. The work unfolds before us the way a closed fist opens into a full and open hand. And, as it does, we follow its movements of expansion, and create with it a more subtle, lyrical, and vibrant image within this larger and more open space.

To see only the object, the construction, is to limit ourselves to the level of perception of a cat or dog which sees only the finger which points and not what the finger is pointing at. These works -- and this is true of a great deal of the best art being produced today -- deal more with implications and suggestions, with extended possibilities and implied probabilities, than with things, ideas, or values which can be nailed down, dissected, and defined. The artists who create this kind of art operate from the assumption that there is a great deal more "out there" than we can put our finger on, and then proceed to probe, to extend themselves, and to point in the direction where their intuitions and sensibilities hint these larger truths may lie.

We should be grateful for the vision and the integrity of these artists who probe into and examine areas of feeling and knowledge not previously given form. Unfortunately, however, they are more apt to be subjected to derision and contempt by the very people who loudly proclaim the need for faith, vision, and truth. It is an old story in this century. First it was Cezanne who was considered beyond the pale. Then, when he was finally accepted, the wrath of the doubters turned against Picasso, Matisse, and Braque. Later on it was Miro and Mondrian. And then, after World War II, it was Pollock and Dine and Johns. With every acceptance of what a new artist or school produced, the wrath of the doubters moved on to whatever was new on the horizon.

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It makes as little sense to feel that everything new is bad as it does to see everything new as good. We must learn to discriminate, be able to sort out what is life-enhancing and affirmative from what is decadent and negative. We must be able to differentiate between what is innovative and forward-moving and what is merely idiosyncratic and regressive, between what is mind-expanding and what is spiritually crippling.

There is a world of difference between the "new-ness" of an Andy Warhol and that of a Robert Motherwell, between what is decadent and what is dynamic and ethical. Our civilization's future may depend upon our ability to perceive this distinction. To fail to do so, to lump everything new and difficult together as fraudulent garbage, is to fail to see where the path into the future leads up and where it leads down.

We should be grateful for those artists whose passions and visions are positive and life-affirmative, and who probe into areas as yet not seen with love and commitment. Barbara Valenta is one of these. Her art is joyous, lyrical, and vital. It is open, anti-dogmatic, questioning, and freeing. And highly attractive to boot!


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