In the Frame for July 2014: Valerie Potter’s ‘Untitled’
Bethlem's collection has several pieces by Valerie Potter, including an untitled painting that exemplifies her early style. Potter went on to create some extraordinary black and white embroidery pieces, but this untitled painting shows not just the shapes and images that continue to appear in her later works, but also the bright, riotous colours that she initially experimented with.
Potter is largely a self-taught artist, although she did study for a while at Hull College of Art. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, but her career as an artist belies the commonly held myth that creativity flourishes alongside excess, addiction or even mental illness. Many artists are aware of these myths, and become very sensitive to their own use of substances such as alcohol and emotional states in response, but while some people still believe that addiction and mental illness inspire creativity, others focus on the need for dedication, stability and hard work. Curing an addiction or completing treatment for a condition like schizophrenia does not hamper creativity. Potter's work reflects this. Her work has flourished as her mental health has improved, according to the Tate Gallery, although art has always played an important role at every stage in Potter's life. Her early works include many brightly coloured paintings like Untitled, but she has gone on to create drawings, and later embroideries, often featuring similar patterns and images. Since the 1990s, she had produced a selection of embroidered images, using black thread on unbleached calico, but she has more recently been working with cross-stitch embroidery. It is the absurdity of this form that she finds attractive. "Can you imagine anything more pointless and bizarre than trying to create a world that is made up of curves and swirls on a grid that only takes straight lines?" she told the Tate. The contrast between the restrictive medium and the intended result is perhaps even greater when it is Potter who is working the needle, since she continues to create worlds using the same swirling lines and patterns that are found in her Untitled painting.
Untitled is a busy painting, bursting with eclectic images of eyes and faces. Potter's interest in patterns is apparent in the varied textures that adorn sections of the painting. Some areas are covered with a regular grid-like pattern, while others swirl with speckled colours that seem like the skin of some mythological reptile, or else a patchwork of brightly patterned batik cloths. This is a painting with few restful points for the eye to settle. Everywhere, there are lines of colour and pattern that drag the eye onward, keeping the viewer's focus moving, swirling round and trying to find a way in to make sense of it all. A slightly jarring sense of confusion is the first reaction to this jumble of shapes, but as the viewer takes the time to explore the scene, recognisable images do begin to stand out. The eyes are particularly clear. Some of them are paired with savage-looking mouths, while others hover over spaces where vague face-like shapes can be discerned around them in the surrounding curves of colour. The eyes are almost entirely disembodied, but there is still a hint of the contorted faces that surround them, fractured and overlapping, which creates a sense of tension that can never be resolved. The two overlapping faces on the left-hand side of the painting, for example, can never be disentangled from one another, however much the eye tries to see them as separate. Other images are also revealed through patient observation.
Burning candles, legs and bodies can be picked out from among the apparently abstract shapes that surround the floating eyes. These are the types of shapes and images that can be seen elsewhere in Potter's work. They form part of the mythology of the world she creates in her art. According to the England and Co Gallery, Potter sees her work as "like technical drawings of ideas and scientifically precise diagrams which represent the events of another world," and this is certainly an impression that the viewer can receive while finding a way around a painting like Untitled. The exaggerated, misshapen faces and symbols, like the gods and goddesses that appear elsewhere in Potter's work, can make the viewer think of the art and writing systems developed by ancient cultures like the Maya. The same bold colours and patterns, exaggerated features and misshapen symbols, compressed together into complex messages for the viewer to unravel are present in Potter's mythology. Stepping into Potter's world through a work such as this Untitled painting can be a slightly disorientating experience, but it is one that is well worth some patient exploration. Taking the time to see how the same images reappear throughout her work, or to watch how the patterns swirl into meaning when you stare into an image such as Untitled and start spotting the faces and symbols it contains, can enable you to see much more than colour and confusion in Potter's work.