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Arts & Culture

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Artist Vincent Valdez, the anti-James Franco

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

Courtesy of the Artist

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

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

Mark Menjivar, Courtesy of the Artist

'The Strangest Fruit' (detail), 2013


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.”

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