Renée Duval: Qualia

Text by David Elliott

One of my favorite books from the early seventies was Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass.  I particularly remember the cover; a line drawing of a simple chair in the center of a circle, caught in the radiating geometry of energy nodes.  It was as if Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man had been replaced by Van Gogh’s humble wicker seat. Sit down & wake up!  Easier said than done.  To be here now is the most basic call to focus and according to Alpert, the fundamental path to enlightenment.  Although the book is long gone (victim of communal living), I continue to think about it after all these years and still dwell upon the idea of achieving a locus in the world that is both anchor and lightning rod.

Renee Duval’s new paintings locate us in just such a way, achieving a level of transcendence that is rare. The mechanics are surprisingly simple yet infinitely subtle. Duval has concentrated on the ageless interaction of trees and sky.  When I first saw the work, I confess to being surprised at the initial punch and the subsequent staying power of such an obvious figure/ground combination.  Their physically commanding scale and point of view, coupled with Duval’s ability to perfectly pitch colour and tone keeps them abuzz.  In her press release, the artist speaks of verisimilitude and certainly Realism with a capital “R” and its accompanying fidelity to nature and technical finesse are important aspects.  Duval’s work most immediately recalls other phenomenological, realist painters such as Jack Chambers or Antonio Lopez Garcia, but it also reminds us of the connections between this kind of perceptual realism and other art practices, particularly in its nuanced control of light.  In front of one of her paintings, we are engaged in a mind/body/eye contest that is not dissimilar from what we might experience in the presence of a work by James Turrell or Robert Irwin. 

In Duval’s earlier paintings, the artist included her hands within forested landscapes.  They operated as guides, didactically instructing us to engage in the ritual of seeing as though it was a game of hide and seek.  Over here!  No, here!  Look at this! While there is a charming innocence to this approach, the invitation to see in the more recent paintings is uncluttered and in the end much more convincing.  With the images de-populated, the viewer becomes the sole human presence. Heavy impasto of earlier panels is replaced with beautifully modulated glazes giving the paintings an epic sense of light and space. The point of view is less earth bound. The gaze is towards the heavens. One of the works in this current show is a circular, telescopic view of pure sky that acts as a tribute to Renaissance and Baroque ceiling painting and the tradition of di sotto in sù particularly Mantegna’s famous fresco in Mantua, minus the cherubs.  The other paintings use trees as a foil for the sky, contre-jour, the branches echo our own nervous system and other mysterious constellations.  Transmission choreographs a tree and a cloud in close harmony.  Hold is high chroma with a brilliant blue sky in hard contrast with a tree. In Ever, Duval’s atmospheric handling of chromatic grays creates a marvelous spatial envelope.  Curfew strikes me as something of a stoner classic.  Perhaps the title is a give away.  The painting invites the viewer to lie on their back in a park at sunset.  Rather than facing the horizon to see gaudy streaks of yellow and orange, guided by a small pine, we look straight up to where colour is of a subtler hue, remaining still, nestled under a sparse canopy of branches, we let the light slowly drain out of the sky. Pure bliss.