"It's a world of war. There are well over fifty wars going on right now."
Valk has no firsthand experience of military conflict. (He was called up during Vietnam but rejected for medical reasons.) When he was growing up, though, there were skirmishes on his home front. Valk says of his father, who was a doctor, "There was a core of violence inside him that was so intense that he passed it on to my brother and me. We both have struggled to reject that part of our inheritance."
That background shaped his interest in warfare. "It's not being aware of alien or foreign or exotic things," he says. "[Wars] resonate completely with the culture of violence that I believe exists in the United States."
The Greenlease Gallery at Rockhurst University harbors Valk's arsenal of artwork, Infernal Machines, just through March 23. There, viewers will come to understand what Valk means when he says, "Violence is easy to see, but hard to look at."
The exhibition includes a prologue of the artist's earlier work, primitive weapons such as axes, hammers, knives and clubs. But the bulk of the show consists of pieces Valk finished during a sabbatical from his teaching post at Rockhurst during the last year. Valk bases his newer sculptures on contemporary guerilla weaponry, such as nail bombs and Molotov cocktails.
Most of the work was inspired (if you could call it that) by specific conflicts. For "Revenge: Wherever You Go, I Will Find You," Valk has hammered dozens of long, rusty nails and stubby tacks into a gracefully bowed, cane-shaped piece of wood. A curved, sawlike strip of steel extends menacingly from the head of the cane, and two industrial black plastic clamps grip the body, holding it high above the white display pedestal. "The immediate subject matter is the genocide in Central Africa that started with the conflict in Rwanda," Valk says. "In a month and a half, one group of people killed with machetes about a million people." Regardless of whether viewers have that background knowledge, though, they'll feel a sense of unease gazing at the tense clamps and the jagged, worn surface of the steel blade. By covering the weapon with painful-looking nails and tacks, Valk offers a commentary: This weapon causes physical pain and destruction to the perpetrator; violence is a source of mental pain and destruction to those who practice it.
His "Betrayal" series is a response to the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, though one of its pieces, "A False Friend," employs some of the same formal and conceptual devices as "Revenge ... " A long, thick, rusted nail runs down through the neck of a hammer and into the top of a small tree stump; the stump's roots extend outward like creepy spider legs. A porcupinelike barrage of sharp nails covers the grip of the hammer, preventing its constructive use. "Weapons are tools, but they are destructive tools," Valk says. "The purpose of a tool is to make something, and that purpose has been -- I don't want to use the word perverted because of its sexual connotation -- but in a sense, that's what's happened."
Ultimately, these older pieces probably wouldn't make effective weapons. But to do some serious damage with his new works, "Home Preserves A" and "Home Preserves B," Valk would need only gasoline. Valk and his wife, Sherry Best, have created a set of four pipe bombs using glass canning jars -- the kind grandmothers use to stock their pantries. They crushed clear glass and stuffed the shards into some of the jars; others are lined with hundreds of sharp gray tacks. Heavy pipes rise out of the jars like hammerhead sharks, spewing white wires that twist until they end in gray and blue fuses.
"The Good Mother," meanwhile, is a set of two zip-gun contraptions in jelly jars. Their cheerful red-and-white checkered lids try to evoke a homey feeling, but the jars are crammed full of tacks, and emerging from the lids are fat, tightly wound springs capped by dull metal washers and bolts. Valk began to think about the mechanics of this piece after visiting the Leavenworth prison museum, which displayed homemade weapons that guards had confiscated from inmates. Valk says he created these works as a reflection of American culture. "It's the concept of preserving things -- the issue would be preserving biases, preserving hatred, preserving bigotry. Remember the bumper stickers 'Hate is not a family value'? Well, sure it is." Interestingly, at the same time as Valk is putting a cynical spin on everyday household items, the government is urging citizens to defend their homes with rolls of duct tape, sheets of plastic and flashlights.
When he's researching his subject matter, Valk prefers to read foreign news sources, which he says provide a different perspective from media in this country. He also explores the loss of childhood innocence, combining his own old toys with potentially dangerous weapons.
In "A Child's Home Defense Archery Set," he attaches knife blades and nail bombs to the ends of arrows from his boyhood archery set, then plants the shafts in bottles stopped with silver corks. He's glued shards of glass, screws and tacks to the bottles, and dirty strands of cotton fabric hang from the lips as fuses. The ends of the arrows are painted orange and red, and rings of blue, black, orange and red paint circle the thin wooden cylinders.
Valk uses another personal relic in "Toy." He has removed the head from a mechanical toy duck, swapping it for a slender stick of wood and attaching his father's knife blade to resemble a beak. Along with "Totentanz" (an airplane sculpture concocted from Valk's childhood .22-caliber rifle and his daughter's miniature broom), "Toy" feels slightly out of place with the rest of the works in Infernal Machines. Although they share common themes with the other works, "Toy" and "Totentanz" come across as more playful.
But it's not surprising that Valk tries to add a little comic relief to his body of work.
"I wish I were making furniture," he admits. "I do. Rather than making these goddamned things. I'm not using that as slang. These are God-damned things -- that's why they are called Infernal Machines." Beautiful to the eye but deadly in nature.