Sunday, 20 October 2013

Val Denham-Dysphoria

Dee, from Nõi Kabát, is an old friend of mine who, once-upon-a-time during his salad days, which he spent partly in West Yorkshire, I managed to convince of the lie that a certain Throbbing Gristle single was sung regularly and in unison by supporters on the terraces of a certain Manchester football club and that I’d been there occasionally to witness this implausible phenomena as a teen. I’ll leave you to work out which one it was, by the way; although here are a couple of clues for you: it wasn’t “Something Came Over Me” and it wasn't “We Hate You(Little Girls)”. I was reprimanded years later when it dawned on him that he’d been playfully duped and I had to ask him what he was on about because I’d actually forgotten ever saying it...tra-la-la...any road, another friend of quite a few years now with more than a handful of Throbbing Gristle related stories to tell, could she be bothered, is the artist, musician, poet and partial barn-pot Val Denham, a highly generous selection of whose art work has just been gathered together in a most phenomenal two hundred and twenty page hardback book entitled “Dysphoria”, this published in France by Timeless Editions: . UND, in my view, to say it is an electrifying, magnetically fascinating cornucopia, an object of such beauty that life before it already seems unimaginable, that in just over a week since mine arrived in the post it has become an almost sacredly-prized possession would undoubtedly be one litotic declaration of the highest order. Oooh! I think I might just have invented a new word there in trying to concoct a sentence which could come close to one of those crafted by the late Leonard Sachs and, thereby, partially evoke the ambience of 1960s and 1970s Leeds, West Yorkshire, for this is where our tale begins...but more of that in a minute or two. 

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More seriously, and I’ll repeat this at the end, undoubtedly, I cannot recommend this book to anyone even vaguely interested in terms strong enough to do it justice. It really is phenomenal, from the very second you first clap your eyes on it. Irrespective of the contents, which I’ll come to by and by, the production values alone are most exquisite, this beginning with its perfectly satisfying weightiness and optimal proportions through to its beautiful and richly inviting red cover, from the centre of which one of Val’s unmistakable, astonishingly rendered and hugely arresting eyes stares confidently and magnetically into those of the reader, sucking them towards its contents, whilst around this window to the soul, in one of her more arcane and gothic compositions, crowd all-knowing skulls, insightful-looking, disrobed vestel virgins and is that The Scarlet Woman from “The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” centre stage at the bottom? I wouldn’t be surprised, one jot, if it is. All are saturated red, too, in keeping with the overall colour scheme, but also they appear like the book’s blood-inflated organs, visible through a carefully sliced and deliberate incision made to reveal the life-force and personality pulsing within. Around this, majestically and classically arranged in gold, the book's details are provided, framing the previously mentioned image in a style which, for me, concurrently bring to mind the psychedelia of, say, a 13th Floor Elevators sleeve, the vaudeville styling of an old circus poster and the mysterious gravity of an ancient almanac or spell-book. All three seem partially apposite, too, when you first peruse the contents. Open it up and the front and back inside pages are lusciously lined with thick, marbled paper on which red, yellow and black mush around amorphously, like the contents of an over-loaded liquid wheel. The opulence of an old school friend’s copy of Section 25’s “Always Now” album instantly popped up from my memory when I first looked at it. 

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Right! I’m harping on a bit so let’s say a little, or probably a lot, actually, about what’s inside. Firstly, spread across its pages, distributed thematically rather than chronologically, although of course there are temporal clumps, you will most importantly find over two hundred artworks, almost all of them in colour and nearly each with their own single page. Again, no corners have been cut here, in their careful and respectful reproduction. These span an almost forty year period, the oldest dating from 1976, I believe, and the more recent having been produced this year and what becomes evident when looking at these is not only Val’s incredible talent and quite brilliant appreciation for and use of colour but also the range of media, styles, techniques and so on that she has drawn upon (no pun intended, sorry!) over the years; yet, despite this, the work is nearly always possessed of strongly unifying themes and motifs which bind them together into a uniquely coherent body. In fact, during the opening sentences of one of the book’s chapters, “What is Tranart?”, she states quite boldly that this has been a deliberate ploy: ““I suppose that the unusual aspect of my own work is how it differs from many other people’s in that I try to avoid one style alone...what I’ve attempted to do is avoid style at all costs because I think that one style only would somehow restrict me. I like a bit of confusion...I explore my subconscious and the painting is a rationalisation of the internal conflict that is perpetually within me, my dysphoria...Style is irrelevant to me, content is all.” 

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In addition to the paintings, then, there is quite a lot of fascinatingly revealing, candid, highly eloquent and engaging text by Val herself in chapters with titles like: “Where Did Val Denham Come From?”; “What Was Val Denham Like As A Teenager”; “What Is Tranart?”; “Why Does Val Denham Love Colour?”; “Why Did Val Denham Move To London?”; “Did Val Denham Ever Do A Proper Job?”; and “What Does Val Denham Think?” Interspersed with these are also contributions from friends, people she has painted or collaborated with over the years, often all three, some grafted in from other sources, some specially prepared for the book: Monte Cazazza, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Marc Almond, Gavin Friday, Antony Hegarty, Geff Rushton (Jhonn Balance) and Friedrich Strasse, whoever the bloody-hell that might be.

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In the first of the Val chapters, “Where Did Val Denham Come From?”, she tells us of her background growing up in Leeds, stating early on: “I was born a boy, but for many months after my birth, even my mother was confused, not knowing whether to dress me in male of female attire. Sometimes my mother thinks it’s her fault that I’m the way that I am, but it isn’t. It’s biological, something to do with an influx of oestrogen whilst in the womb. This has an effect on “brain sex” not developing quite as it should. A female brain in a male body was the result for me.” This duality is central to Val as a person and also to much of her work and she tells an interesting, formative story of sitting on the sofa between her parents as a child watching two television sets, each blaring out different channels to match their disparate desires. No wonder she connected with “The Man Who Fell To Earth” so much. She also speaks of another early influence, a book called “The Living World of Science” she owned which was filled with images from science, some anatomical, which she loved to look at as a child and which included a poor quality reproduction of Da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, the combined contents of which were to coalesce later when informing her work. There is also the story of her grandmother once declaring, “That boy will be one of three things, a surgeon, an artist or a priest”, Val’s response in the book being that, “I was certain I would be an astronaut but I was wrong and she was completely right on one of those three vocations.” As I’ve pointed out myself to Val in the past, when she told me this story, I think there’s a strong element of truth in all three, actually. She was a bit of a child prodigy, too, as she was made to go round the various classrooms at school with drawings she’d produced so that all of the other children could go “Whoa!”, so advanced did her teachers find her work.

“What Was Val Denham Like As A Teenager?” then briefly traces her story through secondary school to study art at Bradford College, who accepted who her at the unusually young age of 16, when all of the other students were 18, this institution winning out over Leeds’ Jacob Kramer College, who’d also offered her a place, by virtue of its preferable architecture. The chapter ends with Val stating: “Back in 1975, I dyed my hair, I wore make up. Students and tutors told me that I was a genius. Who was I to disagree? My parents kicked me out of home when I was 19 but, boy, was I a handful. I can’t say that I blame them.” A couple of highly amusing, fascinatingly revealing and eruditely expressed extracts from Val’s diary from April 1978, which appear later in the book and were written in the run-up to this family crisis-point, are also included and stand as testament to this retrospective evaluation. To reveal their content to you, though, would be to spoil that which awaits upon purchasing this treasure.

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I’ve already quoted from the four pages of “What is TRANART?” but a little more won’t hurt, as Val perfectly explains her modus operandi: “I employ a figurative and non-figurative semi surrealist art is a kind of therapy...the internal map of my neuroses, severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Gender Dysphoria...analyse the surface of Tranart and you glimpse neurotic hieroglyphs trying to describe what it is to be me...meanings are always masked in a kind of visual code within my work. Even now I employ obscuring patterns and imagery, though the reason to do so no longer exists...I no longer live a double life suppressing my true nature, but the code remains.” Like Vincent Van Gogh, for example, the artist and the art are practically inextricable. I could quote and quote from this section but won’t. You need to buy a copy of your own and read it for yourself. However, follow my advice and you’ll find her explaining why genitals appear so frequently in her work, how politics do not interest her and how she proudly considers herself unfashionable and anachronistic. She even details one or few of those obsessions.

Several years ago, when I interviewed her for my fanzine, Val told me that the artist Patrick Heron once described her as one of the greatest colourists he’d ever seen and, in the section titled “Why Does Val Denham Love Colours So Much?”, she explains from where her appreciation of colour derives, an important factor being the images she encountered in the pages of a book called “Heraldry of the British Isles” which she was allowed to look at when she was at school. The vivid French Ultramarine, Golden Yellow, Vermillion or Pillar Box Red, Chrome Green, Black and real Gold ink and their bold juxtapositions have stayed with her ever since.

“Why did Val Denham Move To London?” and “Did Val Denham Ever Have A Proper Job?” then briefly tell the story of her move to The Royal College of Art – she was pissed on cider when she faced the interview panel – and her early forays into music whilst she was a student there, firstly as The Death and Beauty Foundation and then Silverstar Amoeba. Her first marriage is mentioned, too, as well as the birth of her two now grown-up children, assorted jobs and mention of her only ever solo exhibition, organised by Some Bizzare Records in the Autumn of 1987.

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Amongst lots of Val related Throbbing Gristle /  Psychic TV ephemera - gig flyers, record sleeves, t-shirts and old photographs - lies a facsimile of an interview her old pal Genesis P-Orridge conducted with her in 1980 for a magazine called “Primary Sources”. The print is very small, however, so be prepared for a headache after reading it or a minor and temporary out of body experience when you refocus on the telly or whatnot. I could have done with the magnifying glass my Nanna used to use to read the paper and messages in birthday cards when I went through it. The eye-strain it provokes aside, it’s more than worth the effort, as quite insightful and interesting comments abound. In the introduction, GPO describes Val as “the most talented graphic artist working in England, an enigma of nervous gender and exceptional skill..”, also stating, “he is young, still a student, unknown as an artist yet very much part of the post-punk TV generation and a prime example in his relationship with the RCA of the shortcomings of that college in particular and the dissolute British art scene in general.” These are themes picked up in the interview, the latter being the most interesting to me, given what came later. In answer to the question “What kind of problems do you face at The Royal College of Art?”, Val replies: “One tutor told me that I was the only student who’d ever been there that he couldn’t figure out. He just couldn’t understand what I was doing, no matter how much I talked to him. I think that’s how most of them feel because they’ve had years of students doing emulative art and they know what it’s about but they don’t know what my work is about, even though I say it doesn’t matter...even if they accept what I do, they then think I should do pictures of dead bodies every day for 3 years with writing scrawled under every one until at the end of 3 years I have got a perfect picture of a dead body with the perfect combination of words, perfectly scrawled under it.” Beginning to sound familiar? 

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Murder scenes, portraits of murderers and related images were quite common motifs in Val’s work at the end of the seventies and the dawn of the eighties, photorealist drawings of Maureen Hindley and David Smith and Mary Bell, for example, a drawing based on a photofit of the still at large Yorkshire Ripper and another titled “Victim of the Ripper, Xmas 1979”. There’s also a series of murder victims sprawled across beds, done in pen and ink, a bit like Walter Sickert scenes executed by a twisted hybrid of Aubrey Beardsley and David Hockney when he illustrated Cavafy’s poems and produced his version of “The Rake’s Progress.” There’s even a story not retold in the book, unfortunately, of West Yorkshire Police turning up at Val’s door one time suspecting her of being the aforementioned serial killer, having received a tip-off about the content of her art and her having to painstakingly and frustratingly convince them that just because she painted murder didn’t mean she went around doing it herself.

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As the book draws towards its close, just prior to its grand finale, Val wearing a tiara, sash diagonally draped across her ample bosom and clutching a large bouquet of roses whilst generously thanking all those who have encouraged and believed in her over the years, some of those other voices I mentioned earlier are heard in a section called "Portraits". My favourite of these is Gavin Friday who, as well as recounting how he first met Val, describes his appreciation of the art: “...the Paintings / Drawings / Covers all seemed so familiar to me. It was if I had known them all my life...all my “weird dreams and nightmares” coming together...It was Dali, it was Dix, it was Ernst, it was Chagall, it was Sex, it was Fear, it was Love, it was Hate and most was very Catholic...” I’d add people like William Blake, Richard Dadd and Louis Wain to the list, too, and, when I mentioned this to Val a few summers ago, she pointed out that, interestingly, I’d unwittingly compared her to artists who were considered mad...mmm. Val is probably most famous for her work for Marc Almond and in a short passage where he says that his post-accident memory loss prevents him from recalling how he first met Val - read my 2009 interview with Val, which she has reproduced on her website (, and you’ll be able to get her version of events, as well as the story of how Victoria Principal once lured her into a tent in the school playground and then tried to kill her with a giant needle on the grounds of her religious denomination - he does say, though: “When I first saw Val’s paintings, I was transfixed by them, like nightmarish religious iconography, and she played an important part in the Mambas imagery. She has a classical super-real painting style with a twist and wonderful technique...she’s a real artist whose fabulous exotic, intriguing character goes hand in hand with her paintings.” Then, linked to this, the article from a 2010 issue of “Wire” magazine in which Antony Hegarty spoke of his favourite record artwork is reproduced, this including the words: “The portraits on the Mambas covers were highly stylised oil paintings, intensely articulate and detailed, with a selectively applied sense of disported proportion, dimension and brocade. The painter’s hand was skilled and classically virtuous, and yet the content was diabolically subcultural. To this day I have never seen anything like it. There was a dark and threatening effeminacy to the work; they seemed magical to me as a teenager.”  Being roughly the same age as that writer, this is an experience to which I can almost entirely relate.
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That’s the book, then. I cannot recommend this book, for the second time, to anyone even vaguely interested in terms strong enough to do it justice. It’s a complete and utter snip, too, in my opinion, at just 25 Euros plus postage and it’s limited to only 300 copies which are selling like hot cakes, I believe. Plus, if you’re composed of such proclivities, like anything Val related, it’s going to be worth a bomb one of these days, so it’s an almost guaranteed investment which could help get the kids through college or prove useful when upsizing in the housing market. If you’re not, just get it, as life will never be the same again...and my lips have remained firmly congealed vis-a-vis Monte Cazazza’s “Ten Obscure Facts About Val Denham”; yet another reason for splashing the cash, of course.

Finally, but no less importantly, besides being a visual artist, Val Denham is also a poet and musician who, over the last thirty years, has shared concert bills with the legendary  likes of Einstürzende Neubauten, Psychic TV and The Virgin Prunes, as well as less famous artists such as Bjork’s pre-Sugar Cubes band KUKL and a host of others at the infamous Equinox event staged in London in June 1983 and documented to some extent in David Keenan’s book “England’s Hidden Reverse”. However, this version of events seems to practically write Val and her friend Antal Nemeth out of the history of the early eighties “industrial” scene in London, despite them being placed quite centrally in it and their playing quite key roles in events like Equinox.  More recently, she has performed solo or in collaboration with Black Sun Productions on the continent, one gig for example being in Amsterdam warming up for the late Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson’s Soi Song. Plus, we’ve even had the privilege of her performing a short set in support of our beloved Rent Boys in Leeds where, despite some technical problems and the rather cramped, knicker and soft toy festooned environment, she went down a storm...and wore a beautiful floral vintage dress, probably bought in Brontëland. She’s also released numerous CDs of her music, too, many solo, and often in hand-coloured, signed sleeves, but others in collaboration with people like the aforementioned Black Sun Productions, Ô Paradis, Farmacia, Queen Lear, old mate Oli Novadnieks and  Sword Volcano Complex and, no matter what she puts out, there’s always at least one genius gem to take with you to the grave. Here’s some proof in the form of personal favourites: “Shopping(Shoplifting)”; “Split”; “Women Destroying Bombers”; “Glow”; “Now The Bottles Empty”; “As I Walked Out One Evening”; "You're Not My Type"; “Eat Us Mother!”; “Mandy”; “Wondersound”; “This Time It’s For Real”; “Cobalt Blue”; “I Try To Kill The Man”; “City Lights”; “Shine”; “Judas Fish”; “Yorkshire Hills”; “Thinking of My Girl” – the list could go on, such that on the rare occasions I’m asked to DJ these days I have an unwritten rule now which means always playing something by Val, as well as something by Andreas Dorau, Boyd Rice and Cyberbeatnix.

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To get to the point, “Dysphoria” is not simply the book but also an album released just the other day on the rather bespoke Vanity Case Records. Like all of Val’s own releases, it’s highly limited and will be gone before you can say Jack Robinson but, just in case you want to get one, before I give you the email address, here’s some details. Format One: Vinyl LP in signed and hand painted cover with full colour insert in hand silk screen printed shopping bag, twenty-three copies only. Format 2: Vinyl LP in hand silk screened cover with full colour insert, one hundred copies only. Format 3: CD in hand silk screened cover with extra exclusive CD of five additional songs - 'Why Does The Bitch Drink So Much?', limited to sixty copies. Again, the message is get one whilst you can. You won't regret it.

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Here's the Vanity Case link and then we'll finish with a little film of Val performing live and one of her singing in her living room.


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