THE SENSITIVE METRICS OF AMALIA VALDÉS
Pottery is at once the simplest and the most difficult of all arts.
It is the simplest because it is the most elementary;
it is the most difficult because it is the most abstract.
Sir Herbert Read
When I met Amalia Valdés and she showed me a simple vessel of her own at her atelier, which she had created in a meeting with Dominga Neculmán, I realized I was faced with an artist who was returning to the deepest determinations of matter. This is not common in a young artist, especially when a large part of her work has to do with the production of works openly inscribed in the local geometric tradition. This means that her reflection on the origin of forms and the search for an artistic affiliation forced her to lay her eyes on the archaic traditions of agricultural origin. Contemporary geometric abstraction certainly falls under the determinations of urban civilization, to say the least. So what is it that makes a young artist go back to the source, in the context of a flight forward of a local contemporaneity corrupted by the animist objectualism and the spectacle of the neo-decorative social animation?
The preceding lines place Amalia Valdés in a debate that goes beyond her and whose disturbing details I’m sure she does do not want to know about. It is the reason why she traces back her meeting with Dominga Neculmán, of whom she says that, from her point of view, her life is already and by itself a “work of art”: a living human treasure. However, there are family ties that bind her from her early childhood with the artisanal production of utilitarian and decorative ceramics from the coastline of the central zone. All this points to the existence of a kind of fundamental archaic reference background to which she wants to return after her studies, looking for signs of a formal austerity that may give course to a materializing imagination.
These last words come from Gaston Bachelard’s famous text Water and dreams.
He devotes a chapter to substantial waters and from their analysis he states the hypothesis of a primary law of imagination: “a matter to which the imagination cannot give twofold life cannot play the psychological role of a fundamental substance. A matter which does not elicit a psychological ambivalence cannot find its poetic double which allows endless transpositions”.
Thus, we’ll see that certain poetic forms feed on a double matter, where water appears as a fundamental element of transaction, resulting in a mixing scheme that will find in the dough its realistic pretext, since it is the very notion of matter which depends on the solidarity between the paste and the effects of modeling.
Everything I may say about it is valid for all artists working with clay. The issue is indeed relevant. Bachelard pages should be required reading in schools, as well as in the research by Chilean anthropologists of the Mapuche or the Quinchamalí pottery. All this forms the basis of a very consistent local history, to which Amalia Valdés has resorted to recover the wisdom of the dynamic hand and the geometric hand, both in the conception of her work as in the set up of her exhibition.
Well, these two distinctions allow us to address the pieces that form this exhibition. On the one hand, a piece created using rolls from the coiling technique, but extending their continuity to unusual, if not extraordinary sizes, extra-human, which end up making-dough, but nevertheless do not fail to connect the dynamic hand with the desire to maintain the symbolic affiliations inscribed in the technical procedures. The roll refers to the disturbed filiation of its reproduction, allowing its proliferation to expose an exemplary intricate density.
On the other hand, the handcrafted pieces come from a potter’s wheel that reproduces them through a process dominated by rhythm and flow, making axial symmetrical objects based on spinning revolutions. All this results in a lot of regular vessels that are immediately stripped of their base, leaving upper and lower openings that, once fitted together, give form to an object of totemic and indeed, ceremonial appearance. Thus, the gesture of technical “mutilation” separates them immediately of any possible domestic universe. Quickly, stripped of all utility they are tributary of a ceremonial use for their subsequent integration into the field of art, a task in which she has received the diligent and generous collaboration of José Luis Pincheira, a wheel potter from Pomaire whom she had met because he had worked with her aunt, Pilar Correa.
At this point, the proximity between this type of work and the relations between authorial pottery and folk pottery become evident. In the case of Amalia Valdés,
the first acquires an institutional guarantee from the implied wisdom in the formal affiliation of the second. For this reason, the totem erected for this exhibition reproduces the formal requirements of the totems of Mapuche origin, such as rewes and chemamulls. The latter, a wooden man, is a funerary figure that facilitates the access to the world of the ancestors of the deceased’s soul. In this case, Amalia Valdés builds a figure that displaces the man of clay’s literalness, in order to turn it into an orderly rising sequence of symbolic connectors.
Amalia Valdés has set in motion a dry imagination, to fit rings of clay upon other rings of clay, producing a substitute roadside shrine. Certainly, this is a funerary monument within a contemporaneity that does not know how to live together or be faithful to its determinations.
Now, on the wall of the room, Amalia Valdés has built a mural with ceramic tiles. That is to say, on the one hand, she produces an upright form that connects heaven and earth, and on the other hand, affects the room that for the occasion has been turned into a burial vault. The two rooms are connected by the same molding drive, by similarity and analogy. I will speak of the organic analogy of the endless lulo which, reconverted and concentrated, results in a chest of high resistance before the fire arts. I will speak of similarity to reverse the effects of similarity carried out in her work through surface operations.
What is a surface operation? “It is an information operation, a surface information. For example, I place a mold on clay. What do I expect? I expect the clay, under the impression of the mold, to reach a position of equilibrium. Then I unmold it. There is a transportation of similarity”.
Amalia Valdés unmolds signals that distance themselves from what I have already said about folk pottery. In this case, the starting point is an academic scholarship that meets the requirements of a city space, which is consolidated in the lining of the house walls. It is worth mentioning at this point that, in this task of producing tiles, Amalia Valdés has received the extraordinary collaboration of Hernán Jara and Jorge Espinoza, molding experts and former workers of the first tile factories.
Deleuze, in the book already mentioned, reproduces an analysis in Problems of style by Alois Riegl, where he studies the evolution of some decorative elements on his way from Egypt to Greece. What matters to Deleuze? To speak of the Egyptian space. And how? Speaking of KA, the spiritual double of the deceased. I make an immediate connection: I already said this mural piece is the decoration of a burial vault. The Egyptian double is the individual essence extracted from appearance, subtracted to death. Now, the law of this individual essence is the closure that secures and protects it from accident, from variation. That is why in Amalia Valdés there is an accurate proximity to the mold and the modeling of negative spaces.
Thus, the closure is nothing but contour, i.e., geometric abstraction. And each abstract line will close the individual essence. That’s what it’s all about. To isolate each figure to make a feigned puzzle that will only depend on the variation of closed elements on a flat surface. Indeed, it is not a puzzle but a mosaic, formed by a narrow number of randomly combined pieces, forming relationships that are played in a type of configuration in which form and content are, so to speak, on the same level, without overlapping, because Egyptian art is essentially bas-relief, which “implies denial of the shadow, denial of modeling, denial of overlapping, denial of depth”.
Deleuze speaks of Riegl and greets his lucidity to analyze, for example, the fold of Egyptian garments, only to say that this is a fold that falls completely petrified, forcing itself not to produce any thickness. It is a fold that falls solidified, flat, without groove, like “a fold that has been ironed”.
Now, we should look back at Amalias Valdés’ work.
To summarize, for this exhibition it is necessary to transmit two key issues. First: the totem, the funerary monument. Second: the covering of the chamber turned into a burial vault. That is, pottery reclaimed as funerary art. We know that there are villages where the dead are buried in a fetal position, arranged inside earthenware urns. In some cases the ashes were kept, in other cases the disjointed bones from previous burials. Infants were introduced into vessels in fetal position. Thus, the vessel lays bare the fetal form that enabled the return to the womb. But all of this is information to demonstrate, for the time being, the funerary quality of the set up of Amalia Valdés’ work which, however, is directed to consider above all the determinations of filiations when she learns to produce the endless lulo that links her with the most archaic traditions.
After all, what Amalia Valdés is recovering is the creation of a rhythmic pattern through combinations and fittings of elements that produce ritual effects, forming object units of great balance. Thus, what she presents is a principle of regularity, which should be taken as a platform for the development of a gender perspective linked to archaic practices, which connect both the funerary vessel as the production of tiles intended to hold a second grade “decorativeness”, from which it is possible to exercise an institutional critique of domestic space.
Justo Pastor Mellado