Richard Day Gore’s ‘Valerie’s Family Secrets’ at Max Bloom’s Café Noir Has Alluring Ambiguity

More than 20 paintings comprise Richard Day Gore’s solo show at Max Bloom’s Café Noir, but “Valerie’s Family Secrets” begins with a jaundiced yellow light coming out of an otherwise-black, forlorn tenement (A Tiny Cry In the Night). The building more resembles a place where Kitty Genovese could’ve been murdered than where someone would birth a baby. The exhibition ends with a close-up of a doll’s face, cracked, chipped and broken, missing an eye and half its hair (Rachel: Coda), suggesting the natural fade accompanying aging or the intentional systematic breaking down of someone once beautiful and vibrant.

That duality in every painting—innocent and malevolent—gives us a complex narrative, leaving potential clues that can be interpreted in various ways. Curator Bax Baxter doesn’t provide any more information than the initial inspiration for the work: The artist helped his mother condense a long life into shipping cartons after she grew too old to care for herself. While that leaves things open in a way that can be frustratingly noncommittal on the part of less talented artists, the ambiguity here has purpose; it’s worth going along for the ride.

The deceptively simple conceit—painted moments of the character’s life—allows for both arc and a cumulative tension as we head toward a narrative climax. (It’s set up chronologically and works well that way, but if you prefer your story Irréversible-style, sans the confrontational sex and violence, viewing “Valerie” in reverse also has its merits, making the tale feel more tragic than just inevitable.) There are a few brief suggestions of happiness—the destroyed doll in the last painting is pictured fresh at its purchase, painted in black and white as if from an old photo (My Doll, Rachel); there’s a heart carved into a birch tree (Ray and I); a moment on a beach with a couple and a small child (Our Day At the Beach, Just Us Three)—all of which can be read differently. The doll has a hand up as if it’s warding off danger; the mottled sky in the background is a choking blue, brown and green miasma hovering about the defaced tree; in the latter, a scene from Nevil Shute’s dystopian novel, On the Beach, comes to mind, the sky and sand resembling yolky yellow leftovers from a nuclear disaster.

Other paintings include a gaily colored vacuum cleaner wrapped up with holly sprigs and a red bow, the background a garish green holiday wrapping paper, as if a gift that keeps someone in their place is any idea of a thoughtful present (Blue Christmas); a bottle of Valium resting against a background that looks like a fresh gout of blood (Mother’s Little Helper. PT.1); two photos of a man that have been ripped in half and placed together so he resembles Two-Face (Some Gave All); there’s an orange extension cord innocently plugged into a wall, snaking through a house, leading to a door that’s slightly ajar in an otherwise-dim basement (Beneath).

Gore’s a remarkable storyteller first and a show-off painter second, so his technique is unlikely to knock you out at first glance. The straight lines are nonexistent and operate more like an askew Hitchcock camera angle: it’s uneven, unsettling and the perspective awkward, but you never care because his stark imagery works every time. Canvases are rarely cinematic—they’re different modes of expression, after all—but Gore is also somehow able to unite the two, especially adept at creating mood. And because what’s on display allows for individual interpretation, each viewer will lock on to different images (or moods) that provide their idiosyncratic lynchpin. One part of the story can be seen as suicide by drinking bleach (Afternoon Tea‘s red can, bleach written on it, a white bendy straw perched in the opening), another seen as an act of domestic violence (the bullet casing in the ring box in Forever) and the attempts to destroy evidence (Wandering‘s diary entries floating into a river that winds through a marsh like the electric cords through the house). It’s also possible to see the exhibition in entirely more positive ways—a woman moves on with her life after experiencing trauma, as the story of a survivor—but much of that depends on the depressive/expressive baggage you carry with you.

The experience of the visual arts is often a passive one, as artists provide the images, and then tell you what to think about them. Not here: Gore is comfortable enough that he can hand the reins over and let you do the work.

“Valerie’s Family Secrets” at Max Bloom’s Café Noir, 220 N. Malden Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-2600; Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 4-10 p.m. Free, but you should consider buying a cup o’ joe. Through April 25. The show transfers to the top floor of Santora Arts Building, 207 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, for a one-night viewing. May 7, 7-10 p.m.

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