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Artist Vincent Valdez, the anti-James Franco


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Photo: Courtesy of the Artist, License: N/A

Vincent Valdez in the studio, working on 'The Strangest Fruit', 2013

Photo: Mark Menjivar, Courtesy of the Artist, License: N/A

'The Strangest Fruit' (detail), 2013

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.

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