The heart is a cruel magician. It tricks us into believing rhythm is a universal law. Rivers of blood flow through our veins at a conductor’s pace. Wind sails in and out of our lungs with an orchestra’s precision. We nod our head to the beat. What a beloved song, what a farce. Defined as the abnormality of the heart’s rhythm, arrhythmia is not a failure but rather an inconvenient truth. It is the organ exposed for what it really is—a ticking time bomb.

In a year spent frightened and fascinated by her own arrhythmia, Jess(ica) Valice began the first of the nine works that comprise this exhibition with the triptych. A man, inspired by her late father, dissembles a drum kit, and engages in a bizarre performance. Instead of in-sync, he plays each piece of the set, it appears, one beat at a time. This is a sonic portrayal of the break-up of a one-man band. It is happening at lightspeed and slow motion. His talent is both frayed and exacting, lazy and ingenious. Behold a musician framed at his agonizing peak and his soothing trough. Is this trio of glimpses, perhaps, a kind of musical ellipsis on the back of a funeral memento card? Or, instead, the first few delicate notes that became the heartbeat of the artist herself? Valice’s trademark faces—tight-lipped and unflinching—reveal nothing. This time, the oversized ears seem less a stylistic callback to past work, and more necessary as equipment. Not simply to bask in this limping instrumentation but to face the boos and applause and questions from the audience.

When the charade of the heart has been exposed, what remains are the clues lurking in the faces and figures behind the curtain. What do they reveal? Might they know something we don’t about how to carry on living with explosives trapped in our chests?

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Based in Los Angeles, Valice was born in 1996 and studied neuroscience before becoming a professional painter. Self-taught, her prior work has focused broadly on the human condition. Arrhythmia, her 2023 Stems Gallery Exhibition in Paris, narrows its attention to where that condition begins and what happens when the origin story is interrupted. Here, Valice largely drifts away from her big-eared past and towards full figured, dynamic scenes where a cinematic universe of characters and possibilities confronts our naked fragility.

The titular piece, like much of Valice’s work, began as an act of self-portraiture. Curiously absent is her real-life zipper scar. Choosing to omit such an obvious nod to heart problems only to swap in the tool most associated with identifying them leaves us with still more to ponder. When does a stethoscope cease to be a set of headphones for a doctor’s cardiac critique and when does it become a pleasure tool? Or a noose? And did Valice intentionally shape it into a broken infinity symbol? If so, she might have invented the perfect punctuation mark to affix at the conclusion of the year-long artistic pursuit fenced inside this exhibition.

Taken together, the collection may be said to offer an assemblage of peephole glimpses into what transpires when we attempt to revoke the heart’s license to fool us. To view one work individually is to be gifted a carefully curated puzzle box. Each of these paintings, in Valice’s subtle disregard for subtlety, demands further assembly and we oblige.

Consider the brutal humanity of the only work where the figures are hidden. Valice imposes the emotive paradoxes usually reserved for her androgynous faces onto the sensual—perhaps vaginal—folds of a tablecloth, the plumpness of a yet-to-be-squeezed lemon, and the leathery shine of four loafers. Here, Valice conjures nudity without a flash of human skin. By interrupting the rhythm and regularity of her preferred forms, the artist manages to mimic—or mock—the heart’s proclivity to change pace. The exhibition becomes her own brand of aesthetic arrhythmia. Imagine that these are not two embarrassed businessmen hiding at a work luncheon—nor two young sisters using their father’s work attire as a diversion from mom—but the painful palpitations themselves, wrangled into human form, and shamed at a party for showing up overdressed and uninvited. Or might the table be the heart itself and somewhere hidden behind the tablecloth—the curtain—sits the drummer, still playing his syrupy tune?

Ambiguity can be an adventure—a detective assignment to discover what’s going on in a painting. It can also be torture—the sudden, unexplained death of a parent. Valice’s canvases at once capture broken-hearted moments and yet contain, almost impossibly, all the pieces required to make them whole.

What if the heart is not playing tricks after all? Arrhythmia is more than an explosion in slow motion. It is an honest invitation to an unannounced party. It is a celebration of the abnormal, the unnatural, and the irregular. Maybe the heart is also a musician, and that broken melody is just the jagged echo of the oldest, truest family song. —Alex Dwyer

Arrhythmia: Jess Valice @ Stems Gallery, Paris is on view through March 11, 2023