There are few people that can look at a work of photorealistic art and not be awestruck by the seeming impossibility of rendering an object, or in Pedro do Vale's case, a face, with such astonishing detail. For the purveyors of the form, this isn't the challenge - it's building a concept that's the hardest part.
I'd barely made it through Pedro's door before he had told me he likes people and had made me a cup of tea. All of this after a guided tour of his flat - a space he's turned into a sanctuary where he can switch off. He wasn't lying though, he clearly really likes people, and drawing them. It's all he thinks about.
There's a wooden board propped up against his wall - a familiar face adorns its facade. It's Lucky Luciano, a famous death-defying gangster with a face for the ages. He painted him in a style he is comfortable with, beginning in negative and removing the dark, essentially, adding the light. Luciano doesn't have much light though - he was a scary guy and the portrait is appropriately menacing.
It sits there staring with such intensity that it seems like a light is trained on it no matter where you move to. The wooden board is smashed, yet it clings on with some hardy splinters, the way wood tends to grasp. Pedro smashed it himself. He told me that if he can dodge death all of those times before - why not now? The crack runs down one side of Luciano's face, slightly contorting the visage. Erosion pocks the surface - his face has a texture. That's hardly a portrait, it's a story.
We head off to his studio in Xabregas. In the car he tells me about the way that he has started to take care of his body. Like a tattoo artist, the scrupulous level of detail in his art is demanding. It's meant experimenting with his diet to maximise his concentration. Too much food meant he was too hungry during the process. These days he subsides mainly on water during his working hours. When we arrive and I see the portraits sat out, some pinned up, others framed, it is impossible to tell them apart from a photograph. You can see the hours spent on them.
Other ones though, whilst retaining the detail, give themselves away to more abstract and experimental methods. A particularly magnetic example is a negative portrait of Travis Scott, the rapper. As with his portraits, he started off all black - rolling the charcoal, his preferred tool, down the paper until it's covered. Then he uses objects and his hands to take it away. What's left is a ghostly form that transforms depending on the level of light its bathed in. There was Travis Scott, cloaked in darkness, standing on stage in front of me.
Pedro's wary of becoming a guy that can draw hyper-realistic portraits and nothing else. It's understandable. But that's not something he has to worry about for long. His portraits are of interesting faces, predominantely homeless people, initially at least, that he used to pass daily. When he takes their photographs, he doesn't ask about their lives, doesn't need to know their names. He just wants to capture the face. This isn't to depersonalise them - it's to include everyone in their face. The figure he portrays is just a composite of all of the lives of those that surround them. Any detail could affect the finished product. It's pure aesthetic honesty with a backbone of almost angelic naivety.
He's giving his subject a clean slate. He's a non-judgemental hand. No matter what they have done to get there, whether it be by the cruel decisions of others to their own bad moves in life - he doesn't ask. His truth comes in his ability to make other people feel the same energy as he did when he found the person - when he was drawn to them it was without rhyme or reason. Somehow you can feel it too.
The transfer of energy is imperative in his process. When he was at college studying art, his teachers would often chastise him for using his hands to manipulate the charcoal. It's not the way it's done they'd tell him. He could never understand why. When a portrait sits in front of him, the texture granted by the charcoal guides his hand. He feels the light, channels the curvature of the face. It's like a blind person reading braille, only this is his own language.
His fragile perception may come from a childhood that he laughs about. He wasn't like other kids, not quite. When everyone else was shooting people on Grand Theft Auto, he lived out in the countryside with his father - no TV, no computer games. He was there with a couple of CD's and the natural world. Most people could name every clothing brand by the designs label's outline, yet be unable to identify one type of tree by looking, not him. His perception seems tuned to a finer degree than others. When we see block colours, puddles of blood on games and flashing lights on film - he had the light and dark of the world to guide him. At the time it felt like sensory depravation, now he realises that it may be the opposite. That it is other people that have become blind and numb to such important subtlety.
He's currently working on two main projects, one of which is based on people with Alzheimer's. Potentially terminally ill people will sit in front of him as he works on them. The project explores the ideas surrounding the perfection of memory and its importance. What does it mean to us now? What if we lost it completely?
A dying woman was in front of him. She was wheezing, barely able to sit, but she did. For him it was a tough experience. Sometimes, even with this, it hurts to find out too much. The drawing started as it usually would - bathed in black. He worked away, removing more and more of it, creating contrasts and tones, but it felt wrong. This was a human being about to be no more. He wanted to give her as much life as he could.
From scratch, the old sheet thrown away, he began examining her yet more closely, starting with the outline. Any shadows would be added with caution. She emerged, on the page at least, more alive than before. It was an artistic experience like no other. It was learning a lesson about life as he was doing his job. There's a good chance this will change how he approaches he work, his perspective of faces and his ideas of life and death, of darkness and light.
The future will involve more work that will explore conceptual takes on the style that has not only defined him, but that he still longs to create and master - realism. It will also include a great departure from pressure and expectation. His best work has been created by intuition and it must be intuition that continues to guide him. As if he is navigating a dark room in the middle of the night, there is always light if you look close enough. You must be guided be a sense, more than a conscious thought though - otherwise you'll never find the switch.
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