The engines of creation

If painting is once again the medium of a new century (and a digital one at that), it’s because so many dedicated artists of late have reminded us that in the right hands, it can be put to any purpose for which it’s needed or wanted: a plastic art meets the plastic soul. As if to prove it to any lingering anti-brush diehards, a new pair of shows just opened at SAMA, in which native sons Vincent Valdez and John Hernandez put their talents in service of diametrically opposed aims — Valdez to faithfully memorialize a community loss; Hernandez to faithfully follow the wacky dictates of his subconscious — with equal success.

El Chavez Ravine is Valdez’s eagerly awaited collaboration with musician Ry Cooder and the Ruelas brothers of LA’s legendary Dukes Car Club. Its centerpiece, a 1953 Chevy pickup transformed into a tricked-out ice-cream truck, is covered in detailed murals depicting the tale of a Mexican-American working-class neighborhood razed in the ’50s to make way for Dodger Stadium. The use of a Mexican-American artform that celebrates perseverence and ingenuity in the pursuit of America’s elusive promise makes perfect sense here, and Valdez’s trademark early 20th-century romantic realism (those etched, expressive faces, the architecture of the skeleton visibly supporting overworked blue-collar bodies ennobled by old-world obligations) translates cinematically to the truck’s hard surfaces. Historical events such as the forcible removal of the neighborhood’s last holdouts and pastoral views of modest woodframe houses and mailboxes nestled along dirt lanes roll by like movie stills in indigo-tinged black-and-white. Scheming politicians who pulled a public-housing bait-and-switch on the Chavez Ravine families appear in lurid pinks and oranges that match the acid candy hues of the LA sunset backdrop. The overall effect is Chinatown noir, but touching details — a birdcage, pigeons on a wire, wildflowers and cacti overtaking doorsteps, an overturned pot of tulips — remind us that the portraits commemorate real struggles.

You can marvel at Valdez’s gift for recreation by watching a short documentary clip of one of the scenes on a large screen in the corner. Photographs of the Chavez Ravine neighborhoods taken in the late ’40s line the walls, along with a few of Valdez’s studies. In one ominous poster, hands manipulate a marionette bulldozer as it devours homes. The public tale finds resolution in a colorful mural covering the ice-cream truck’s hood, which acknowledges that despite its contentious beginnings, the stadium is home today to Latino fans of the Dodgers, too. But if a truce has been made, a new painting by Valdez suggests that LA’s unpredictable political and physical nature could remake the deal at any time. In an altar-like nighttime view of the City of Angels, the wing where the stadium rests on Chavez Ravine’s bones is ablaze against the pitch, while the city’s telltale palms wave silently in a sea breeze you can almost smell.

Now, which musician is going to cut a HemisFair ’68 album and set Valdez to work in the Institute of Texan Cultures’ archives?

Blood and music course through the Cooder/Valdez mausoleum, but for all its rumbling beauty, it’s a graveyard of unquiet ghosts. John Hernandez’s Zoe’s Room, in the adjacent gallery, is so jarringly, joyfully animated, the contrast made me giddy. So giddy, I wrote the sort of sentence my 40-year-old self usually uses to make fun of my 21-year-old self: Hernandez’s oversize, 3-D, freak-pop creatures are the love children conceived by the Cheshire Cat and Jessica Rabbit during their forced confinement on the Island of Misfit Toys. The happy offspring moonwalk, jive, gaze at their bellybuttons, and float like daydreams against pastel floral splashes and orderly ’50s-style plaids that Hernandez created for this site-specific installation — revealing that the artist is not only a self-proclaimed child of the ’60s, but a student of Bugs Bunny’s good-natured mayhem-as-social-critique. Hernandez’s art is polished to a high commercial shine, yet it’s anti-establishment as well as anti-academic. It doesn’t so much reappropriate pop culture to its own ends as it digests it all indiscriminately with an apparent lack of irony, as if to say to creators, marketers, and critics alike: Thanks, man.

Underneath the playfulness (a show that will do more good for aspiring child artists and their parents than 1,000 hands-on activities) hums a very domestic engine: a slant six powered by a generation of workers for whom industrial blue-collar jobs were a path to a now-dusty version of the American dream. A version of the American dream too-often plowed under in a rush to easy, ephemeral riches. Wander between the shows and see if you can spot it, still potent, idling in the shadows. •


John Hernandez: Zoe’s Room
Ry Cooder/Vincent Valdez: El Chavez Ravine
Through Aug 2
San Antonio Museum of Art
(210) 978-8100

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