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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


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.

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