Unnerving Chicano art: Vincent Valdez

In the NYT Sunday Review on the 6th, “An All-American Family Portrait, in White” by Lawrence Downes, which begins:

I walked through the door of Vincent Valdez’s studio, in a renovated firehouse near downtown San Antonio, the other day. I stopped dead, my eyes widened, my mouth made a silent O.

I was looking at his latest painting, an unfinished oil on canvas that has already reached a monumental scale: over 6 feet high and 30 feet long, in four panels along two walls. But it wasn’t the painting’s size that made me stare and stare. It was the people in it, staring back.

There are about 10 of them, wearing white, clustered as if for a group photo, which it seems you have just interrupted. They might be a family, but there is no way to tell. All you can see are their hands, and their eyes through the holes in their hoods.

One holds a beer, one holds a baby, one checks his iPhone. One, with a woman’s hands, whispers to another. It is after dark. Dust swirls in the glowing headlights of a Chevy pickup, the main source of light other than a pinhole moon and the nighttime grid of a city in the distance.

This painting — “The City” — places us on a bluff, somewhere in the present-day United States, in the company of the Klan.

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Mr. Valdez was not planning to be prophetic when he began the painting last November. He is not a polemical artist, or a literal-minded one, though his paintings are striking for their attention to emotion, storytelling and the revealing detail. He could not have known how much the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacy, would overtake the 2016 presidential campaign.

Since the night I first saw it, the image has haunted me, along with the thought that Mr. Valdez has captured, in a single composition, a selfie for 21st-century America. The grisaille painting — which he is rushing to finish for an opening on Sept. 9 at the David Shelton Gallery in Houston — is poetic realism, a fiction that tells the truth about the country today. It’s a country obsessed with borders and boundaries, full of people who are comfortable but uneasy, clannish but frightened. People who are unaware, even in their robes, how ridiculous and terrifying they appear. Or who do not care.

Mr. Valdez, a gentle 38-year-old with a ready laugh, grew up in San Antonio and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. His subjects are often inspired by Mexican-American history. For a series called “The Strangest Fruit,” evoking the history of lynchings of Mexicans in the Southwest, he had subjects pose while suspended, briefly, by the neck — there was no other way to achieve the bulging distortions to eyes, neck and limbs. He did not paint the ropes; in the finished paintings, the young men, tattooed and in jeans and sneakers, seem to float, to fly, transformed.

[Digression on the song “Strange Fruit”, from Wikipedia:

“Strange Fruit” is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who first sang and recorded it in 1939. Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem and published in 1937, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the South at the turn of the century, but continued there and in other regions of the United States. Meeropol set it to music and, with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York venues in the late 1930s, including Madison Square Garden.

The lyrics of the first verse (of three):

Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees]

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(the first in the series, with the victim fully clothed)

Mr. Valdez said “The City” is a homage to Philip Guston, the American artist who painted cartoonish, menacing Klanlike figures in the 1960s [more on Guston below], and to the politically charged musician Gil Scott-Heron [a note on Scott-Heron also below].

“It’s almost too predictable, too easy, to portray these very menacing, overly aggressive, these guys who are snooping around, up to no good,” Mr. Valdez said. “I was much more curious about presenting them as, underneath those hoods, they’re everyday Americans, working jobs, picking up their kids from school, paying their taxes. Just hanging out, like most families would do on a Sunday.”

“But once they put these masks on,” he said, “they completely change their persona, their vision. In this case they are strategizing, planning, plotting to continue to keep a stranglehold on the city.”

The painting leaves a lot of room for interpretation, he said. “You get to decide what they’re plotting. Maybe they’re not plotting anything.” It’s the questions that intrigue him. “What I love about the us and them is, who’s the us and who’s the them? Because it goes both ways here. You don’t really know what it is they’re doing.”

Valdez is a Chicano artist in one sense: he’s a Chicano, a son of the Chicano neighborhoods of San Antonio, where he was born and grew up, in the midst of a large familia. But he also sees himself as part of a politically engaged Chicano art movement. More on that below.

Downes’s NYT piece excited immediate responses from the media in San Antonio. For example, from the mySanAntonio site on 3/7/16 by Elda Silva, “Klan captures national attention”:

A work-in-progress by San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez has attracted the attention of the New York Times.

Lawrence Downes, an editorial writer for the newspaper, was in Texas last week covering Ted Cruz’s presidential bid.

He stopped by Valdez’s studio, located in a renovated firehouse on the near West Side, and was struck by a large-scale oil painting on canvas called “The City.” Downes was so moved by the painting that he wrote a column about the piece that printed in today’s March 6 edition of the Times.

The gray monochrome painting depicts a family gathering of hooded Ku Klux Klan members.

In his column Downes said he was haunted by the image and that Valdez has captured “a selfie for 21st-century America.”

Although Valdez started working on the piece four months ago, the painting appears to have anticipated concerns about the influence of white supremacists in American society.

Former KKK leader David Duke recently endorsed Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Trump drew criticism for his initial reluctance to disavow Duke.

Valdez is working to complete the painting for an exhibit opening Sept. 9 at the David Shelton Gallery in Houston.

Now, on the Chicano art movement, spearheaded by Cheech Marin in his Chicano Collection project:

Art advocate and entertainer Cheech Marin presents this exhibition of 26 limited-edition reproductions (giclées) of paintings by prominent Chicano artists. The archival-quality digital prints depict images of urban life and the Chicano experience during 1969 through 2001.

Original linocut-print portraits by Artemio Rodriguez of La Mano Press, a one-hour documentary by award-winning director Tamara Hernandez, and an essay by Chon A. Noriega, Ph.D. of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center are included with the exhibition. The giclées were produced by Richard S. Duardo through his studio, Modern Multiples Fine Art Editions.

The exhibition is the culmination of a one-year project spearheaded by Mr. Marin in partnership with Bank of America and Farmers Insurance that is designed to advance Chicano art as a recognized school of American art and increase public accessibility to it. In addition to donating 50 commemorative sets to major U.S. art museums and universities, 25 sets will be sold privately with net proceeds to benefit the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

Valdez is the youngest artist in the exhibition. From the exhibition site:

Vincent Valdez was born [in 1977] and raised in San Antonio, Texas and is the youngest artist whose works are in the exhibition. His first artistic influences came from the canvases of his late great-grandfather, an artist from Spain. Valdez began drawing at age three; as early as kindergarten, he realized his artistic abilities differed from others. While participating in a mural project at San Antonio’s Esperanza Peace and Justice Center at age 10, Valdez decided art would be his career. He worked with his mentor, artist/muralist Alex Rubio, on murals around the Alamo City, eventually painting on his own.

Upon graduating from Burbank High School, Valdez received a full scholarship to the International Fine Arts College in Miami, Florida. After one year, he accepted a full scholarship and transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, where he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration. Valdez exhibits and works on commissioned pieces and teaches art to middle school students in San Antonio.

He’s represented in the Chicano Collection by his piece “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” (2000):

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The allusion is to the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in L.A. On zoot zuits and the riots, see my 11/22/15 posting on Luis Valdez (a different Valdez).

Philip Guston. From Wikipedia:

Philip Guston, born Phillip Goldstein (June 27, 1913 – June 7, 1980), was a painter and printmaker in the New York School, which included many of the abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In the late 1960s Guston helped to lead a transition from abstract expressionism to neo-expressionism in painting, abandoning the so-called “pure abstraction” of abstract expressionism in favor of more cartoonish renderings of various personal symbols and objects.

At first he did politically engaged murals; then abstraction; then in 1970 a new sort of figurative painting – savaged by establishment critics (Hilton Kramer in the NYT, Robert Hughes for Time).

In this body of work [from 1968 on] he created a lexicon of images such as Klansmen, lightbulbs, shoes, cigarettes and clocks.

There’s a direct link to Vincent Valdez in the Klansmen, who appear in a number of Guston’s later pieces, like “Bad Habits” (1970):

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Gil Scott-Heron. The connection to Scott-Heron is more in tone than in specific content. From Ben Zimmer’s death notice for the man in Language Log on 5/28/11, “Gil Scott-Heron’s old-fashioned ghetto code”:

a remarkable performer whose politically charged combination of music and poetry had an enormous influence on the development of hip-hop culture

Probably his most famous piece is “The revolution will not be televised.”

In any case, Vincent Valdez (a Chicano) shares with Guston (a Jew) and Scott-Heron (a black man) a passionate engagement with the politics of race and ethnicity.

To close, a fine photo of Valdez, against the background of one of his vivid paintings (from LowRider Arte magazine:

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