Noah Becker's whitehot magazine of contemporary art

Here be Dragons!: The Devilish Deliria of Henriette Valium

Original comic strip Hand red color p. 13/14, 2004, ink on paper, 48 cm x 33 cmx

Henriette Valium

Galerie Robert Poulin 

Montreal

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, June 2019

“A screaming comes across the sky….”

-- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow [1] 

“Old Burton urged his subscribers to keep their copies 

of the Nights under lock and key. There are such precipices here!” 

-- R.A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead [2]

“I was born weird.”

-- Robert Crumb [3]

The narrative webs spun with such arachnoid agility and alien grace by the inimitable Henriette Valium give one pause. They are intoxicatingly off the wall. And off the charts -- the terrestrial maps, I mean, maybe the star charts as well. The earliest maps bore an annotation: Here be Dragons! in their blank spaces, meaning dangerous or unexplored territories are here at hand. The artist’s own pursuit of terra incognita emulates a medieval practice but the dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures that populate his gloriously glutted paintings and comics mostly wear a humanish face. But Valium is an artist whose labyrinthine cartographies were undreamt of by Ptolemy’s Geographia. Here is an artist who has left the idylls of psychoanalysis and psylocibin far behind as he invokes and gives resonant voice to the whole wounded madhouse of our time. 

Valium (born Patrick Henley on May 4, 1959) is a comic book artist and painter of unsurpassed strangeness based in Montreal. Despite the notoriety his work enjoys on the underground comics scene across Europe and North America, his hallucinogenic style of deep furtive industry has kept him apart from the mainstream comic book industry. Furthermore, his true importance as an artist of exotic genius has never been adequately assessed or acknowledged. 

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Original comic book Hand red color p.4, 2004, ink on paper, 48 cm x 33 cm

Perhaps Valium was born wired. His work has a nervous, tense, and edgy mien. The sinuous declarative black lines and preternatural level of detailing (and dovetailing) of Valium's comics stand apart -- and stand out. The intensity of those lines beggars all attempts at description and defeats taxonomy. Valium is unique in his episodic conjurings of decay and human and urban rot, which bear the name of love and squalor and hellfire. Valium moves deftly through our decrepit urban environments with pen and brush in hand, dilating obsessively on the minutiae of mayhem and madness. Far from the idylls of clean-living Canada, Valium stakes his ground, and it is far from holy ground. Still, his work possesses a Socratic honesty that effortlessly punctures our culture's many hypocrisies, shams and taboos.

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Be Happy, Go Lucky, 2011, mixed technique on mounted on wood, 40 cm x 30 cm

Valium plumbs the depths of his imagination as though it was a cenote, dredging up from the watery bottom of the pit worthy trophies. The Mayans believed that cenotes or wells were an entrance to the underworld, so they were often used for sacrifices, both human and artefactual. In fact, at the Sacred Cenote found within Chichén-Itzá, archaeologists have found an empire of bones amidst all the jewelled bric-a-brac. In all his work, Valium addresses his fans with open arms: Welcome to my Cenote!

Think of your excursion through the Valium demimonde as an extended road trip through perilous, previously unknown territory. For those of you who have driven one of the world’s best road trips, whether Route 66 or Scotland’s North Coast 500, you are in for a rare treat. Strap your self in and start your motors! Valium seems to be telling us that the thrill of the open road can never be exaggerated. Acceleration and exotic destinations are  everything. The vistas are open-ended and previously undreamt of. In the back seat, Robert Crumb is popping ecstasy as though it was so many cinnamon hearts, and the topography outside is pure swampland. There are monsters galore there to reward your wanderlust! Like the Shimmering and the mutant croc in the Jeff VanderMeer Annihilation novel and subsequent film adaptation, they will eat you alive. You are in the front seat of the 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith from Joe Hill’s novel (and subsequent TV series) NOS4A2, with Charles Manx riding shotgun and Pennywise the Clown at the wheel. 

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Modus Operandi # 2, 2002, mixed technique and collage on paper, 12 cm x 12 cm 

On this road trip through a whirligig of extreme flotsam and jetsam, it is more psychoactive fungi than calming valium that is being ingested, I can assure you, and you can expect perceptual gaps, distortions and alterations of thought throughout the trip. While the use of hallucinogenic drugs rarely results in true hallucinations, spending quality time in Valium’s fractured cosmos certainly promises them. 

The tortuous psychedelic road trip that Valium leads you on is reminiscent in any ways to that of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters of an earlier era. The acid-infused extended road trip they embarked on in the summer of 1964, traveling across the United States in an extravagantly painted school bus aptly called Further, organizing shindigs and handing out LSD like so many loaded bonbons en route, seems like an appropriate template for Valium’s own manic endeavour, just as I argued here recently for Les Ramsay’s paintings. His loopy itinerary of feverishly wrought dreamscapes has a ‘connect-the-dots-at-your-peril’-like ethos that is an implicit warning to the viewer’s psyche, and an opening salvo that will result in much collateral damage.

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Original plate of comics Mutants p.5 (#13 to #16), mixed technique on paper, 20 cm x 14 cm

There is also the ultimate user’s manual On the Road, the Jack Kerouac masterwork based on the travels of Kerouac and his friends across the United States. It is a definitive cartography of the Beat and Counterculture generations, with its sundry protagonists engaging gleefully and in extensia in jazz, poetry, and psychoactive drugs. The novel, published in 1957, is really a roman à clef, with much to learn along the way about life, love and the great hereafter and features leading exponents of the Beat movement, such as William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) represented by characters in the book, including Kerouac himself as the narrator Sal Paradise. Now, figures of a more demonstrably demented persuasion like  Henriette Purgatorio’s own alter-ego Pattou, the enigmatic Mister Iceberg, and the evil scientist Doc Lekron have replaced the fabled Kerouac crew.

One of the most recognizable of Valium protagonists is a stick-thin figure propped up in an armchair in a reading frenzy, so glued to a given comic that it seemingly grafts itself onto his face. Then, yours is grafted onto the faces of his comic strips like running thoughts with all the bandages still in place. His work has been called Boschian, and the comparison is apt, Hieronymus to Henriette, since his work is a sort of gin-soaked delirium tremens frottage that summons the demons of 21st-century life in a manner quintessentially medieval. But it is also Bacchian, and sunk deep in nameless orgiastic reveries and revelries. 

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Original plate of comics Mutants p.10 (#31 to #33), mixed technique on paper, 20 cm x 14cm

In the years leading up to 1942, a series of murals found in the Tepantitla compound in Teotihuacan Mexico prepares you for your deep immersion in Valium’s fever dreams. The humungous figures depicted in the murals are supernatural entities. In 1942, archaeologist Alfonso Caso identified them as the Teotihuacan equivalent of Tlaloc. This was the Mesoamerican god of rain and warfare. In 1974, Peter Furst suggested that the murals instead portrayed a feminine deity, an interpretation echoed by researcher Esther Pasztory. Pasztory concluded that the figures represented a vegetation and fertility goddess that was a predecessor of the much later Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal. In 1983, Karl Taube termed this goddess the "Teotihuacan Spider Woman". Outsider Bill Anhang notwithstanding, all this seems perfectly appropriate for and within Valium’s ambidextrous eight-legged reach. Valium is the Spider Woman, spinning her fiendish webs with alacrity. 

The Great Goddess has since been identified at Teotihuacan locations other than Tepantitla – including the Tetitla compound, the Palace of the Jaguars, and the Temple of Agriculture. The statue that once sat near the base of the Pyramid of Moon is the Great Goddess. This ambivalent mother figure is a perfect surrogate for Henriette Valium and perhaps the subject of her most tempestuous inamorata.

Valium’s works are true palimpsests in which teeming orgies of imagery threaten to burst through their seams, inundating the now with a welcome cacophony of irrepressible and forbidden signs. The labyrinthine complexity of his text panels threatens to subsume us. Here are worlds entirely locked inside other worlds, and those worlds multiply, too, and there is no Ariadnean thread you can latch onto to lead one safely back out. We can only go farther in. 

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Anatomical stories # 7, 2009, mixed acrylic on paper, 30 x 25 cm

A panel in Robert Crumb’s Zap Comics, called "Definitely a Case of Derangement," begins with Crumb's wife cowering naked in a corner while he expatiates grandly and with hubris: "From the bedroom closet I operate a huge network of radios, sending out incantations, curses, voodoo hoodoo! I've been called an evil genius. . . . The truth is, I'm one of the world's last great medieval thinkers! You might say I'm a mad scientist for my plans have been worked out quite methodically, logically. But the ends justify the means, heh heh. This comic book is part of that plan." This rant could also be Valium’s insider manifesto, his very own energised protreptic. 

And yet Valium is the proverbial Outsider’s outsider. Here is an iconoclast by both nature and inclination, and one never far from a precipice. He is a worthy incarnation or apotheosis of his avatar Robert Crumb. Like Crumb, Valium eviscerates taboos in order to lay bare the awful truth about middle-class hypocrisy and threadbare urban and suburban morality. He shows us how things really are. You can look away, but inevitably your optic will gravitate back to the work. Look too long and you will be subsumed.

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Chiken Chow Mein, 2011, mixed technique on paper mounted on wood, 40 cm x 30 cm

It is no surprise that Valium reveres Robert Crumb as though he was a God or at least Big Daddy. In the R. Crumb handbook, Crumb wrote:

“About the only power you have is the power to discriminate. Living in a culture like this, you have to make choices and search out what has the most authentic content or substance. In the 1960s, while on LSD, I realized that my mind was a garbage receptacle of mass media images and input. I spent my whole childhood absorbing so much crap that my personality and mind are saturated with it. God only knows if that affects you physically! As a kid I became increasingly interested in earlier periods of culture. I turned into a little nostalgia boy, and I became steeped in the Our Gang fantasy from watching them on TV. So much so, that my speech patterns were affected. The style of those Our Gang comedies was so charming that I started acting and talking like Jackie Cooper and Alfalfa. They had these cute kids, artificial mannerisms. It must have been embarrassing for people to hear me talk like that.” [4]

Anyone who has spent quality time with Henriette Valium’s darkly embroidered fairy tales for grownups can clearly see that he would share the above -cited sentiments, even if he is the product of a very different place and time  -- perhaps outside regulated space and the accepted temporal order – where chthonic powers lurk even as they fester. His work is irredeemably viral. His drawings seem to hint at alien infestation and cryptozoic creatures hidden under their surfaces, waiting to hatch.

II.

Much of Valium’s early work was self-published. So labour intensive is his work that it can take him over six years to produce a single comic book. In Iceberg (1984), the name Henriette Valium is introduced for the first time. Most of the compelling stories written during the 1980s were compiled into 1000 Rectums, It's an Album (1987), a self-published anthology that reaches the heights of intra-anal excess and absurdity. Valium brings in some of his most recognizable protagonists in this blood soaked urban cosmos, such as his aforementioned alter-ego Pattou, the Mister Iceberg, and Doc Lekron. The vignettes dilate on progressive rot and inflammation, disease, chemical and libidinal addictions, abnormal sexuality and the generic/genetic decay of civilisation itself. 

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Anatomical stories # 5, 2009, mixed acrylic on paper, 30 x 25 cm

Primitive Crétin! (1993) is a collection of absurdist and louche episodes that follow the characters who debuted in 1000 Rectums, augmented by memorable characters like The Boxing-Glove Family or Tiplouplou. Critics have noted the sheer surreality of the drawings. Each page of Primitive Crétin! is a singular challenge, fraught with xenomorphs occupying quarantine zones in tightly-packed urban environments that could be Tokyo, Paris, New York or Montreal. The phenomenal intricacy of the drawings together with their outsize scale generate an immersive anarchic grunge environment that sucks viewers right into the eye of the hurricane -- and beyond. We are transformed into Dorothy in the 1938 film The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. “

Or consider Coeur de Maman ("Mother’s Heart"), a silkscreened comic book from 2000. Coeur de Maman is a truly uncategorizable story about a monstrous and oversized nomadic mother’s heart that picks up where Primitive Crétin left off on the other side of insanity. The pages are thick palimpsests that border on unintelligibility but ooze oodles of auratic glamour and spooky adumbrations. Valium locks everything he can in there for our perusal and delectation. Nothing is beyond his purview. In the same year, Valium executed The Survivor, a huge painting centred on a Joseph Goebbels family picture. 

The Palace of Champions is a huge unruly labyrinth of Valium’s comics; in size and tenor alone it has few rivals. The scope and grandeur of Valium’s work is notable and is profoundly interactive and maze-like in its mien, and it stakes a palpable claim on the reader/viewer. That claim is difficult to resist. His are no humdrum domestic fantasias, but late night messages from a distant time zone. Hebephrenia will stalk and devour you there. And yet this work is never far from today’s headlines, and never retreats into the easy, assimilable or the safe. The experience is a disruptive yet eerily edifying walk on the wild side of life.  

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Soup for you, 2011, mixed technique on paper mounted on wood, 40 x 30 cm

The two page spreads in this work have all the unfathomable intricacy and unheralded strangeness of the Voynich manuscript, 15th-century illuminated books and incunabula, Japanese kitchen prints and city guides to cities that are not on any map, terrestrial or otherwise.

Valium’s mazes are circular in that it is never clear where one strip “ends” in this book and another “begins,”. It’s like a Mobius strip or a Mandelbrot fractal but once you are inside the whirligig you really care less about an exit strategy. That doorway has closed, and another one has opened, leading you ever deeper into the heart of Valium’s project, the mystery and enduring paradox of human life itself.

Ryan C aka Trashfilmguru, said:

“Valium’s illustrations are loaded with information — hell, worlds of it — and seem to operate outside the realms of time, space, and logic, to the point where they may even render such concepts outmoded at best, if not downright meaningless. Assaulting your eyeballs and sense of reason with equal gusto, Valium takes elements of old-school underground comix “ugly art,” occult and Kabbalistic diagrams, and the other-dimensional architectural schematics of the visionary Paul Laffoley, adds in several drops of richly garish color, tosses it all in a blender, sets it on “high,” and then pours what comes out five minutes later onto the page. Your first thought when looking at Valium’s art may in fact very well be that something like this probably shouldn’t even exist.” [5]

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Anatomical stories # 1, 2009, mixed acrylic on paper, 30 x 25 cm

Yes, one may entertain that thought -- but not for very long. After all, you chose to explore this particular labyrinth, and you can’t complain that the artist did not give you a suitable roadmap. The journey is the prize, not the point of arrival or departure. The ‘old going road’, like that of the Beats, has a certain allure, after all. The glorious and obscene glut of garbled lingo, the sardine packing, the whole fetid fertile and flagrant endeavour will win your heart, worry your gonads, seduce your soul. 

In Montreal, Valium is known as the Pope of Comics, an appropriate appellation, given the spirit of her industry if not the darkness of her endeavour. Driven to draw, she makes a fetish even of the decay of language in his work to give the impression he is under the influence of chemicals or in the care of professionals.  Her devotion to documenting decay both material and mental is legendary and it’s worth noting that many viewers broke out in hives when viewing the series Sick Priests (Curs Malades), his distorted portraits of priests, when they were first shown in a gallery. This was also the case with his later portrait series of curious plant/human hybrids called 41 Mutations.

Valium’s stand-alone paintings are like radically compacted strips and radiant portraits of unfettered excess. Take a work like Last Moments Alive (2016) wherein the field is like a neural net that has caught fire or War, Shit and Drugs (2013) in which the amorphous globs and feral markings are like the bulging aorta of the human heart under the pressure of lysergic acid. Or the Mutants paintings (2008-09) in which the human face is under assault and in the process of continuous morphing and transmogrification. 

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Modus Operandi # 7, 2002, mixed technique and collage on paper, 16 cm x 12 cm

Bart Beaty, in reviewing Valium's Valium Ab Bedex Compilato (L'Association), astutely asked:

 “What does it do for you? Does it make your heart race with joy? Do you marvel at the sheer insanity of the composition? The way that it is packed with so much visual information that it threatens to overwhelm every functioning neuron in your brain? Do you love the way it looks? If so, then you will love everything about this book.

Or does it make your heart sink with anxiety? Are you stressed out and overwhelmed by the image? Does it make you feel vaguely nauseous? Is your heart palpitating at the thought of hundreds of additional pages like this one? Then you might want to lie down now, this book is not for the faint of heart.” [6] 

Whether you answer yes or no or maybe to the above makes little difference. You have been co-opted. Valium is an obsessional. Here is a real dementia of imaginative congestion and imagistic clusterfuck. You are always already a captive in Valium’s fever dream of sumptuous excess. So give in. Give up. Get real? The latter is, of course, scarcely likely and not a reliable option here.

III.

Speaking about his 1964 painting The Son of Man, the Belgian surrealist painter

Rene Magritte wrote:

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” [7]

This is the same intense feeling that Valium’s work gives us when we look at what it seemingly portrays behind its scrim of the spectacle and the sedulous – or what remains hidden in plain sight – which we try in vain to decode in a comprehensive and orderly way. You can pursue a given narrative there but the best way is to ingest the work whole as a thought explosive, a cerebral nitroglycerin dose. We are caught between being seduced and repulsed, and we catch ourselves examining our own emotional responses to works that test us at every turn.

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Modus Operandi # 7, 2002, mixed technique and collage on paper, 18 cm x 12 cm

Valium has his big thumb firmly pressed on the pulse of our contemporary realities. Often louche, never safe or orderly, he pushes past all the boundaries between sanity, satire and porn. He captures the efflorescence of our cultural Id. His art is shamanic and seems the offspring of fly agaric (amanita muscaria) and really goes Aztec on your ass. What Valium has tapped into is, simply put, Legion according to the Christian New Testament gospels of Matthew (8:28-34). Mark and Luke describe an incident in which Jesus meets a man, or in Matthew two men, possessed by demons who, in the Mark and Luke versions, when asked what their name is, respond: "My name is Legion, for we are many."

Darkness seeps into his art from an extravagant Outside. It’s like an invocation from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos which refer constantly to the "Great Old Ones": a loose pantheon of ancient, powerful deities from space who once ruled the Earth and who have since fallen into a deathlike sleep. Given the right circumstances, they can wake up. Such are the entities that teem in Valium’s feverishly, fiendishly wrought mazes.

Your Valium intake is like travelling the Autobahn in a very fast car. He tourniquets your arm and plunges his syringe in deep, and lights a fuse in your forebrain.  His gilded gutter labyrinths are a grand guignol of the spirit, a contemporary transgressive recasting of Burton’s 1001 Nights in collusion with the Old and New testaments. Here is the apotheosis of the art of the comic, the purely Biblical, the quincunx of the Crumbian holy grail.

HENRIETTE VALIUM, Modus Operandi # 3, 2002, mixed technique and collage on paper, 12 cm x 12 cm

What does Valium want, you ask, what is he after? Surely, it is something like the promised land. But not the land of milk and honey, but the fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah in the old days. Indeed, trying to resist the claim of Valium’s work is like trying to outrun a wildfire moving at top speed. You can run, but you can’t hide. Sooner or later, you will be burned, and perhaps beyond all earthly recognition. 

Valium has placed himself beyond any moral compass. Or say rather that his moral compass is such that each new work is a moral act – an act of defiance and replete bravery and deviltry in the face of the numinous and unassimilable. To acknowledge the moral force in his work means embracing its darkness, submitting to the Shadow, relinquishing all vagaries of control and being occupied by spirits of the Outer Dark.

There is no tidy, piecemeal sampling of this work, and one must heed the instruction in George Macdonald’s famous short story The Golden Key: “Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down. "That is the way," he said. "But there are no stairs."  "You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”  [8]

Valium’s work is represented by Galerie Robert Poulin in Montreal. WM 

Endnotes

1.Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: The Viking Press, 1973)

2. R.A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead (New York: Avon, 1971).

2. Interview by Claire Armitstead with Robert Crumb: “I was born weird”, The Guardian, 25 April 2016 

4. The R. Crumb Handbook by Robert Crumb and Peter Poplaski (2005), p. 60

5. Ryan C. aka Trashfilmguru, “Who — Or What — Will You Find Inside “The Palace Of Champions’ “ https://fourcolorapocalypse.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/who-or-what-will-you-find-inside-the-palace-of-champions/ January 17, 2018. 

6. Bart Beaty, “Bart Beaty Reviews Valium Ab Bedex Compilato, by Henriette Valium”

posted http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/eurocomics/8865/ on June 7, 2007.

7. Rene Magritte, in a radio interview with Jean Neyens (1965), cited in Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. Richard Millen (New York: Harry N. Abrams), p.172.

8. George Macdonald, The Golden Key (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980).

 

James D. Campbell


James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.
 

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