Artist Vincent Valdez, the anti-James Franco

It would be so easy to merely catalog Vincent Valdez’s very real triumphs, mark him as a kind of apotheosis of “Chicano Art”… and to leave it at that. Branded, and therein ghettoized, a terrible tendency among art critics and patrons. For a little while, I was afraid that could happen.

In quick succession, Valdez’s opus El Chavez Ravine (2005-2007), a 1953 ice cream truck painted with haunting scenes of the forced evacuation of a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles, was exhibited at the San Antonio Museum of Art; “Stations,” his interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, hung in the McNay; “Flashback,” an exhibition of paintings about psychic violence, wounded soldiers and the landscape of urban brutality, opened at the Southwest School of Art; and he began showing with gallerist-dealer David Shelton, most notably his spectacular series of boxers, America’s Finest, at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair. That body of work was also shown at the McNay in 2012.

Valdez’s remarkable personal backstory is much written about, and all the more problematic for its seemingly easy narrative hook: Local son done good. He grew up on the South Side, was identified early on as a prodigy and was mentored by artist and educator Alex Rubio, with whom he worked on numerous murals. From Burbank High School, he went to Rhode Island School of Design on a full scholarship and graduated in 2000. That same year he completed the painting Kill the Pachuco Bastard!, which reflected on the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Cheech Marin’s The Chicano Collection acquired it and later highlighted the work in its 2002 traveling exhibit “Chicano Visions: American painters on the verge” and the show’s catalog. The Chicano Collection now houses several of Valdez’s works. In 2004 at age 26, he became the youngest artist in the McNay’s history to be granted a solo exhibition. Valdez is also the chair of Southwest School of Art’s painting and drawing program, which this year will take on B.F.A. candidates for the first time.

“Branding” is a term thrown around a lot in the art world, now. Branding is a cheap substitute for ideas, or a shorthand for an amalgamation of themes and images; branding is a winnowing-down of art output to what could be contained in a biopic elevator pitch, or represented via consumer object; the coffee mug, the calendar. It’s a closed feedback loop.

Consider, for a moment, James Franco, whose collaborations with Isaac Julien, Kalup Linzy and General Hospital are presumably intended as a nifty meta-joke. His most recent aping of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, in which he posed in various girly scenarios in half-ass drag, amounts to foolish self-parody while faking a smart simulacrum of self-satire. Thus Franco’s art dabbling is a noxious feedback loop, with the artist’s ideas (whatever they are) seemingly armored against all comers because he’s just kidding, really. Franco has appropriated the branding of Cindy Sherman without Sherman’s rigorous self-examination, has mined the branding of Isaac Julien without recourse to Julien’s deeply felt history. It’s an empty exercise, and doesn’t elicit much further thinking. Of course, Franco’s experiencing a media backlash now, which is all to the good—particularly for James Franco, if he’s able to gain any insight.

Nobody doubts Valdez’s technical chops, his visual mastery or his deep commitment to social justice, nor should they. But what I worried about was that Valdez’s ideas might fall victim to his exquisite rendering, particularly of the human figure as a synthesis of historical-political injustice and that his oeuvre might become a summary rather than an evolution.

This conundrum isn’t necessarily present in the relationship between the work and the viewer; I do not think it is possible to stand before a Vincent Valdez painting or drawing and not be bowled over by his achingly meticulous technique, and moved by the emotion it conveys. But it can be really easy for critics, journalists and curators to praise his sheer visual grandeur. Similarly, Valdez’s often heavy subject matter can lend itself to unenlightening sanctimony about war, historical oppression, racism and violence, with critics, curators and viewers using Valdez’s work as mere illustration of their own preconceptions. This glowing critical assessment and misguided attempt to confine Valdez’s output to a visual summary of injustice is another kind of feedback loop.

Valdez is acutely conscious of this problem.

“It’s way too easy to portray doom and gloom,” he said, sitting in the late April shade of the scrubby trees on Halcyon’s patio. “Doom and gloom makes it too easy for the viewer to make simple assumptions about what they are looking at.” The amount and kind of critical attention he received earlier in his career, he revealed, only made him want to break out of his comfort zone. There weren’t enough questions being asked, the praise felt too flowery, almost, for what Valdez considered were works that required stringent critical thinking to be fully understood. “It’s some of what fuels my seclusion,” he paused and laughed, “which could come off as my being anti-social, [but] really I’m just heading deeper into personal obsessions. You have to step away to do that.”

Valdez has experienced two turnabouts in the last year. First, a showing of The Strangest Fruit, a suite of paintings featuring young Chicano men suspended in air, at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University. The subsequent critical discussions of the work inspired Valdez to re-examine his mission. His depiction of these guys, it seemed, allowed one particular symposium to focus on the narcowars along the US-Mexico border. This is understandable, but it underscores the fetishization of that violence, which Valdez feels is all out of proportion to its presence in the Chicano experience.

The second big shift occurred during a disorienting and productive three-month artist residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. In an interview with Lowrider in 2010, Valdez said working in new environments “is one of the things I enjoy most as an artist … because my surroundings definitely help to reshape and recontextualize my work.”

He knows that his portraits, in particular, of young Chicano men, are seen as too easily symbolic. He suspected his own outlook needed expanding. For example, in a conversation with a critic in Berlin, Valdez was asked if his portraits were of gay men. “He said, ‘You’re sensationalizing these beautiful bodies in extreme tension, that’s so sexual.’”

Rather than feeling misunderstood, Valdez felt some opening in perception. “I really hadn’t thought about it in that way, and that’s not the lens I’m seeing my work through. Sexualizing wasn’t my motive. But it made me curious, you know, because it was a reaction I had never encountered. It challenged my own perspective: What is the lens I’m using? I’ve got to break it down further, to be less literal, maybe, and to adapt my technique from that standpoint. It was a good challenge.”

He seems to have brought the inspiration home to San Antonio. “My brain is on fire again,” he said at Halcyon, looking more relaxed than I’d seen him in some time; still boyish and soft spoken, but laughing easily and visibly excited, sketching out ideas with his hands. “I’ve had these moments of, ‘why do I do the same thing? Why do I have to be responsible [as though] I’m taking on this role as ‘Chicano Artist?’ It’s like a superhero role, and it’s got limits. How can I break down the body to components with meaning? How far can I get away from what I’m comfortable with?”

His impending marriage to fellow artist Adriana Corral, too, has made him reimagine things and take an abiding but contrasting perspective into account. “It’s a very special union as life partners and as studio mates,” he said. “She questions everything I do. She makes me question, too.”

His terrain hasn’t shifted entirely; it’s still “young, male, brown bodies” populating his psyche, but Valdez’s examination of the forces acting upon them has become more diffuse, more personal, and his technique ever-more minute, but with an enormous added element of mystery.

To that end, Valdez hired photographer Mark Menjivar to create a series of small photographs for the upcoming show at Artpace’s Hudson (Show)Room. I haven’t seen these images, but Valdez tells me his aim is to deliberately obscure parts of the body. Apparently, this runs completely counter to Menjivar’s photographic instincts, which are to sharpen every detail. It’s a good metaphor for the way Valdez’s thinking is changing; rather than hewing to realistic detail—“I’m not at all interested in photorealism,” he asserted—he conjectures a purposeful mystery.

In addition to these photographs, the Hudson (Show)Room exhibition will include The Strangest Fruit portraits, each slightly larger than life-size, against a white background. The young Chicano men depicted refer to the not-long-ago history of lynchings of Latinos in Texas and across the U.S. The portrait subjects, though, are contemporary, and while several of the figures seem to have passed into death or are in its throes, others are suspended, floating.

He wanted not just to portray these young men as victims, but to present them as potentially arisen. “I got really into their outfits,” he noted, because fashion can serve as a form of self-expression but also as an easy target for stereotyping and profiling. “And I wanted them from all walks of life. These aren’t ‘symbols,’ they’re individuals.” He gestures to the pamphlet from the Brown University exhibition. “Maybe this guy grew up on the border, there’s this guy in his sports jersey, the vaquero shirt here, this guy took a lot of time picking it out...”

The paintings make use of Valdez’s keen attention to detail, but something in the relational focus has changed. These men are embattled and worn down, like his previous boxers and soldiers, but the violence done to them happened in another time and reaches forward to right now. According to Valdez, these subjects “are in moments of constructing their own shells, rather than just receiving what the outside world does to them ... How are they identifying, in a sense, how are they branding themselves? I want to deconstruct this very vulnerable masculinity, not prop up some macho comic book fantasy.”

It’s this kind of refocusing that makes for exciting leaps, potential failures and real transmogrification. Amazingly, I anticipate his Artpace exhibition with very few preconceptions. Hearing Valdez openly examine his own methodology and ways of seeing, it’s clear he’s busted out of the loop, and that he’s become too ambiguous—too involved with mystery and shifting meanings—to be used for any branding. Valdez called this shift in tone “experimental.” He explained, “I intensively spent [my] early years focused on crafting my technique and skill capabilities … I have now begun to strip away and deconstruct these methods in which I work … this enables me to branch out and head in new directions.” I can’t wait.

Vincent Valdez: The Strangest Fruit

Opening reception 6-9pm Thu, May 8
Noon-5pm Wed-Sun
445 N Main
(210) 212-4900
Through Aug 31

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