Manolo Valdes is on a treasure hunt. He is foraging. Foraging for the grit and grumble of life that he can transform into beauty. His mariposas and meninas, visages, forms within wood, metal and glass greenery: totems all to the magical universe we inhabit within our minds and the city and landscapes we choose as home. Born in Valencia, Spain, New York is his home now. He sits poised in his chair in his substantial Union Square studio adding fine details to sculptures before returning to tackle the outside world. His is on obsessive quest for raw material and the physical combat of creation curated with the elegance of a present and inquisitive mind. One gets the sense he works unceasingly. His words pour forth from a mental acuity both exceedingly intelligent and sensitive to the task of being a living master within the annals of art history. Gregory Lhami, the Managing Director of Opera Gallery NYC, points out that in every generation there is a multitude of artists, but very few sift through and are remembered. “I am not an artist. I am a dealer and I am from a family of dealers”, Gregory clarifies. “I think as I see the work of Manolo, the person and his works are important in art history. The creation makes sense. It is intelligent. There is a clear reference and there is a lot of knowledge. You can immediately feel it when you see his work, his sculptural painting. He is a complete artist. A multimedia artist. Very few artists can pretend to have this privilege: the work speaks to the collector rather than the dealer speaking to the collector. This is where you feel the strength of the creation. And his art is very beautiful. It is important and an honor to work with him.”
Olivia Daane: Which artist do you consider vital to your visual language then and now?
Manolo Valdes: Picasso. Picasso remained relevant because he continued to grow. Picasso showed me you can put three eyes on half a face. I wish I could say I did that first. I was fortunate to be born in the 20th century when others had paved the way for these materials.
What is a material that fascinates you?
Everything. As soon as man stepped on earth, he started leaving visual, plastic evidence or clues. Walk around like a hunter in a treasure trove. I never use new wood, clean wood that has been produced for carving. I look for my materials in weird places. If I had a truck, I would just pile it with things from the side of the road.
On your playlist?
I love music. It is an added bonus. I do not listen when I’m working. The noise of the machines is my music. It makes me feel like something is happening.
On your bedside?
What fuels you most? You seem to have an insatiable appetite for visual matter?
Living in a city that has so much information, so much plastic appeal, so many things to look at! If I go to the dentist office and I don’t look through every magazine, I don’t feel I have done my job.
What makes you jealous?
The adhesion of people to commemorative, monumental sculpture. The way kids crawl over a large Alice in Wonderland mushroom. I want that relatability but with a slam dunk in the quality of process.
What is your greatest strength?
Curiosity. The ability to transfer that curiosity, to turn it from a pile of scrap, to convert it into a piece of art. I’m always piling things up. I love what I’m doing. I am a “looky-loo.”
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I cannot imagine. Nothing goes in my head. If I had to choose something I like, I would be a fisherman. Shore fishing, and the liturgy and ceremony of its preparation, is one of the few things that for a little bit of time takes the painting out of my head. But I love to paint more than I like to fish. Painting is a disease.
For what are you grateful?
I had very understanding parents, which is fundamental. When you are growing up in Valencia and you tell your parents you want to be an artist, it is almost a disaster. When you get kicked out of art school in your second year (I left out the bad door), almost no parent can withstand that task. They then gave me the chance to work in a studio. One Sunday evening at 10pm I caught my father spying on me when I was working. He was so happy that evening. We never spoke of it. I was not wasting my time. I was focused. I had left school. I found Rauschenberg who made a stuffed eagle a piece of art. I saw a French painter who moved black paint with a piece of wood. And I said what am I doing with a stick with some hair on it? I met (the work of) Soulages and American Pop artists and I found freedom and liberty. I have a kamikazee blindness, always working. Art is not a self-gratifying exercise. A writer wants to be read. A painter seen. You want the phenomenon of seeing it out in the world.
Valdes’ process is a fascinating tangle. It is a history of material. He is a true consumer and collector of art and art history himself. Beginning with the unexpected and raw, he bends it, breaks it, controls it. He makes it antiseptic with carefully constructed lines, only to destroy it again so he can weave it back into visual poetry. The viewer makes it whole. He gives us enough honesty and balance that our eye cannot resist sorting the mass and making it lovely and wishing it was ours. Valdes follows art history, intuition and a constant work ethic.
He is interested in everything from prehistoric, to Greco- Roman, to new and shiny. His studio is walled with bookshelves and he just had 27,000 kilos more moved from his library in Spain. He was afraid his studio floor would collapse. The consummate investigator with a hunger for visual clues and knowledge of the unspoken energy that binds us all. His oeuvre yokes together the real and the magical both in the process of the hunt and his use of found and very solid material (burlap, glass, metal, wood). There is a Spanish saying that “butterflies in your head” means you have a big imagination. One day walking through Central Park, never knowing there were butterflies there, Manolo spotted them circling a woman’s head, then he went to the Met and there they were in a still-life and again later that day on a Japanese fan, then in a vitrine on Madison. This is how they came to him. This is why they are in his work. This is Manolo’s fairytale. We get to walk through it with him. “Not everybody can create art,” he explains, “but a lot of people can have these feelings.” “The life of the artist ends when you lose your memory. Because without memory, there is nowhere to land.” He is training his memory to balance the fragile and the forceful, the overt and the hidden. Ours is forever emblazoned at a glance at his work through a window perhaps or on our very own treasure hunt down a city street.