Rita Valley holds a (wise)cracked mirror up to our culture
Written by Hank Hoffman
Rita Valley is a cut-up. She cuts up paper, magazines, and fabric for her collage-based works. But she is also a cut-up in the other sense of the term. Humor isn’t often encountered in contemporary art, but much of Valley’s work is genuinely funny.
“It’s just who I am. One of the ways I get through things is laughing about it,” says Valley in an interview at her home studio. Valley is regularly invited to exhibit and her artwork is included in numerous public and private collections.
Valley trained as a painter but switched to collage about 20 years ago, a change she attributes to quitting smoking. When she stopped smoking, she says, she couldn’t concentrate. Collaging and sewing kept her fingers moving.
“When I’m collaging, I start cutting out lots of little pieces, lots of little circles and the same thing with sewing,” says Valley. “It is a kind of movement which is repetitive and kind of relaxing.
“Collaging comes up in so many aspects of what I do,” Valley says, noting that the collages often get compiled into her artist books. Her sewing works have their beginnings in collage. Even her large-scale installations have their roots in collage. The Bum’s Rush, a 1999 pastiche of a fashion show constructed and staged at Erector Square, was an outgrowth of I, Couture, an artist book that parodied fashion magazines.
“It became one of those things that runs away,” says Valley. (Runs away on a runway? Puns are second nature to her.) “If you make your own fashion magazine, the next step is to collage the actual outfits my model artist friends could wear on the runway.
“It comes out of the whole recycling/repurposing thing that I feel very strongly about,” she explains.
Valley doesn’t subscribe to a plethora of publications. She scavenges raw materials from library castoffs and the local recycling center, gathering fashion, news, and financial magazines.
“Our popular culture is so full of raw material. I think a lot of artists hold mirrors up and say, ‘This is what you’re presenting me.'”
In the past few years, Valley created a series of collages inspired by the economic crisis and riffing on “throwaway phrases” like “zombie banks” and “predatory lending.” The rough symmetry in Valley’s cut-paper imagery evoked both Rorschach inkblots and – more central to her practice – old-fashioned samplers. Like repurposing materials, playing off the concept of “women’s work” is important to Valley.
“I grew up with a mother who sewed. It kind of dawned on me one day – I went into a fabric store to get beads and the material was fabulous, like collage, because it is printed already and colorful and has tactility,” say Valley.
“(Women) used to make fancy cut -paper things like silhouettes, things ladies could pass their time with,” says Valley. But by creating works that are “a little more political in tone,” Valley’s pieces cross boundaries of expectations.
“I tend in my life to respond to things with my work,” says Valley. Losing her job in 2004 prompted Valley to create Color Me Jobless, a coloring book dealing with the vicissitudes of unemployment. Not surprisingly, Valley has recently seen a renewed interest in that work.
“What do you do as an artist?” she asks. “Well, you make it into something.”
In 2009, Valley composed her entire income-tax return as a collage, copied it, and submitted it to the IRS.
“If I have to spend all this time working on my taxes, then they should be beautiful,” says Valley, who characterizes herself as “mathematically and financially challenged.”
“So instead of sending in the ugly tax form, I actually made my own, which took me way longer,” she says. “They said my taxes should take me four hours. It took me four months; I started in January.”
Valley even collaged her W-2 form. Every word, every piece of information on the official government form, was collaged into Valley’s creation. She consulted her accountant as to the legality of her project. He told her there was nothing in the tax code prohibiting taxpayers from making their own forms. But, Valley adds, “He thought I was crazy.”
“I wanted some publicity. I wanted to get in trouble,” Valley says, laughing. “I thought, ‘This will be good. They’ll come and get me, they’ll handcuff me.’ But they didn’t.”
Valley received her refund check without comment. She will sell a copy of her form for $182 – the amount of her refund.
“I keep getting assured by people that somewhere at the IRS somebody has my income tax return above their desk.”
Along with the collages, sewn works, and artist books, Valley is known for her large, engaging, participatory installations. Besides The Bum’s Rush, which she created with Ben Westbrock, Valley also produced Be ReBorn Thru Art, a giant fabric birth canal that was installed in the City-Wide Open Studios alternative space at Science Park in 2003. Visitors could have Polaroid pictures taken of them as they emerged.
“I spend so much time in my studio making things, and I love that, I like the solitary time. But then I like to turn around and say, ‘Here’s the spectacle.’ People like to walk into a big space and every square inch has been animated, activated, and you can go up to it and it’s hands-on. With a lot of art, it’s about keeping hands off,” explains Valley.
“A lot of people are never going to make art. And I’m lucky – you can’t stop me from making it — it’s something I do every day. So it gives people who might not be confident enough with their own creativity an opportunity to say, ‘Look, I stood here and got my picture taken and I’m art of her artwork.’ They can take it home with them and it’s not going to cost $1,000 to take a Polaroid home,” says Valley.
Most of Valley’s artist books combine “mass production” – high-quality laser prints of her collages – with handwork. Her bestseller, she says, is God Hates Artists. A sardonic look at both religion and the impecunious existence of most artists, God Hates Artists was produced in an edition of 30; Valley has sold 10 copies so far. The collage prints are hand-sewn to the pages and then framed with black electrical tape, which gives a “leathery finish” to it. Valley has had one book professionally printed. A response to her intense math anxiety as a child, Math 4 Artists was produced in three volumes – collages of the numbers one through 10, charts and graphs, and “magic squares.”
“I like having something slick,” Valley says of Math 4 Artists. “We worked on every page to make sure they were cleaned up from my collages but not too cleaned up.”
Although Valley has a job three days a week photographing antiques, she works on her art every day. She has created several artist books based on collages of the letters of the alphabet. One year, Valley made a face collage every day – 365 collages compiled into a volume for each month.
“I just got up and did a collage no matter what I was doing that day. It was great discipline,” recalls Valley. “If I was going to work, if I was going to a party, if I was going to New York for the day, I had to do a collage before anything else.”
Her irrepressible creative work ethic has been invaluable in coming to terms with a freak accident earlier this year in which she blinded herself in one eye. (Valley has hopes that the blindness can be surgically reversed.) Because her impaired depth perception makes the detailed cutting work of collage difficult, Valley is concentrating her artistic efforts on larger sewn works.
On the wall of her studio is a series of miniature tapestries with eye imagery as a theme. An eye in the palm of a hand plays off the concept of hand-eye coordination, a notion intrinsic to Valley’s artistic practice. There is an eye on top of a capital letter “I.” Numerous eyes like leaves adorn the two drooping branches of a tree that evokes a weeping willow, an unintentional allusion, according to Valley. She is so drawn to puns that she creates them even when not aware of it.
“Obviously, there are so many puns about seeing. What is art? It’s about seeing,” says Valley. “Things come out of my work that I won’t notice until after the fact. You may think you know what you’re doing, but there is so much stuff that you are channeling. It’s wonderful.”
Valley is very serious about the subjects she tackles, whether they are political or personal. But the element of humor comes naturally to her.
“If I can make myself laugh while working on something, that’s a good thing,” she says.
“If you walk into a gallery and see a work that’s dead-on earnest and somebody asks, ‘What do you think about it?’ it can be a little off-putting,” says Valley. “But if something is funny in it, you might start laughing and be a little more receptive to it.”