From prodigy to preeminence

Last summer, I led a group of adolescent participants in Artpace’s summer art camp through Vincent Valdez’s Chavez Ravine installation at the San Antonio Museum of Art. The teenagers readily responded to the work; they grasped the tragic narrative of a longstanding Mexican-American neighborhood destroyed, its residents displaced, to make way for Dodger Stadium. The campers perceived the story’s historical place vis-á-vis ongoing colonialism and social justice, interpreted easily the significance of Valdez’s use of documentary photographs, parsed the messages imparted by different palettes signifying sorrow or terror in the works’ sections, recognized the iconic components of Los Angeles (commercialism, sprawl, Hollywood) “told” through the beautifully embellished ice-cream truck, the large-scale landscape painting of a burning Los Angeles, the background documentary video. Chavez Ravine, a grand and powerful material statement commissioned by Ry Cooder and executed by Valdez over the course of two years, emerges as art and educational tool; non-fiction imagemaking with historical importance, both on its own and as a document of the events it mourns and rages over.

Several weeks before talking to these kids about the piece, I’d watched Valdez speak onstage with David Rubin, SAMA’s Brown Contemporary Art Curator. The biographical outline of Vincent Valdez is well-known — our hometown hope, the great-grandson of a noted Spanish painter, San Antonio’s prodigal son, and prodigious product of the San Antonio activist-muralist tradition who began mural-making as a gifted 10-year-old through a program at Esperanza, then as a teenager at Burbank High and under the tutelage of Alex Rubio, before heading off to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

At RISD, Valdez completed “Kill the Pachuco Bastard,” a large-scale narrative painting that depicts a scene from the World War II-era Zoot Suit Riots. It’s a dizzying starmaker of a picture, both bewilderingly complex and wholly coherent in composition, a historical document that rumbles into the present, roars into the visceral experience of looking at it (the painting now resides in the collection of Cheech Marin, who has shared it nationwide.)

Rubin elicited from Valdez, in front of a packed and rapt auditorium, the painter’s use of his brother as model and as subject, portraying soldiers, boxers, a “blaxican” warrior confronting the viewer as self-possessed man rather than exoticized Other. He spoke movingly of his sense of deep responibity, the historical inspiration (and burden) of unfolding the Xicano experience and history.

I worried that Valdez, for all his compellingly abundant gifts, was — destined? forced? inclined? — to become a maker of sumptuous and socially conscious historical subjects. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; but I was concerned that in his quest to confront the injustice and limitations presented by our troubled history, that he was painting himself into a corner of repeated symbols, of masterly technique thematically hemmed-in, of literal representation that resists evolution.

Upon viewing Flashback, Valdez’s current exhibition at the Southwest School of Art and Craft, all my preconceptions melted away. Here Valdez grapples with themes deeper than “mere” historical illustration; he’s wandered into a personal territory more ambiguous, oblique, and haunting. Soldiers and boxers still make an appearance — one pastel diptych, 2009’s “I’m Your Brutha From a Different Mutha,” touches heartbreakingly on the moment of death of two young male combatants with the force and horrific compositional beauty of Goya. But the diptych does more than lament the losses of warfare; it meditates on the existential ramifications of masculinity, its precarious role and underlying vulnerability, the need to connect obfuscated by the mandate to fight.

Elsewhere one finds a similar ambivalent multi-meaning. Three paintings in particular — “Times Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Simpler Times” (both 2010), and “It’s Now or Never” (2007) — render allegorical skies, ambiguously loaded atmospheres  worthy, in painterly technique, of Turner or the Dutch masters. No shit. Valdez here seems to have taken on an interior celestial landscape that defies easy interpretation. In “It’s Now or Never,” an architecture of cloud heavy with sulfurous yellow is traversed by three old-school zeppelins, each bearing a glowing word, suggesting dreams, warfare, the visions of a comic-book-reading little boy faced with adult fears. In “Times Ain’t What They Used to Be” and “Simpler Times,” the sky opens up to reveal — or is opened by — these mysterious, painstakingly lettered texts. You look at the sky, and it recalls the ineffability of all other skies you’ve ever seen, and offers no answers, only an examination or emanation of some melancholy nostalgia Valdez doesn’t quite believe in.

Two portraits of men, “John” (2009) and “Fabian” (2009), explode archetypes. Fabian is a weathered warrior, wearing his tattoos like scars, gazing steadily into an uncertain future. And John, a helmeted soldier, wears a thousand-yard-stare that recalls the exhibition’s title; here is a man doomed to experience — if not death by war, then the lifelong trauma that follows the man through the war experience (one wonders if Fabian isn’t undergoing that endess shadow of loss also, 30 or 40 years hence).

A city on fire haunted by a menacing helicopter forms the backdrop for the existentially named “Man Down,” (2010), which suggests no particular conflict but every particular war fantasy turned on its cruel and futile head.

Most importantly, Valdez has taken the male archetypes he has previously presented in glorious, troubling straightforwardness and rendered them ever more ambiguous and deep. He has some intimate-scale drawings up at the David Shelton gallery as part of that gallery’s Foretopia exhibit as well, small human studies that pack a wallop, crafted with a surprising wry humor and deft exaggeration.

Heading in several directions at once, ever-perfecting his arresting technical abilites (my God, those skies! And the gorgeous firework abstraction paintings!) while tackling territory that even he seems a little perplexed by, Valdez is no longer a kid prodigy tapped by older masters to complete projects, but a fully formed (which is to say, never-finished) explorer of heavy evolution. Be prepared to follow him into Hell. •

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