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Arts & Culture

Vincent Valdez witnesses for combat veterans

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Vincent Valdez, Excerpts for John, 2011. Suite of eight paintings, oil on canvas. Collection of the artist.

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Vincent Valdez, America's Finest, 2011. Suite of six drawings, graphite on paper. Collection of Marita Bell Fairbanks, Houston.

"America's Finest" and "Excerpts for John," the sweeping double-exhibition by Vincent Valdez now on view at the McNay Art Museum, gives confirmation to his reputation as a masterful portrayer of combatants, but delivers a tragic personal note for a military town.

Valdez, who in 2004 with "Stations" was the youngest artist to have a solo show at the McNay, returns with another series of his signature boxers. Unlike his earlier soaring works, the drawings of the six pugilists in "America's Finest" are smaller pieces. But their iconic factor is, if anything, amplified — each figure represents a different ethnic group, underscoring the artist's use of boxers as stand-ins for "Everyman," the unsung individual who struggles against the slings and arrows of everyday existence. One of the drawings, depicting an American Indian fighter, takes a swing at stereotypes while referencing classic painting: he is seen as the early Christian martyr St. Sebastian, impaled with arrows. These drawings are fine examples of Valdez's masterful skills in rendering, and are virtuoso emblems of personal resistance. But it is the second half of the exhibition that arrests the viewer in a searing indictment of unacknowledged violence.

"Excerpts for John" is a tribute to Valdez's childhood friend John, an Army combat medic who served in Iraq and died in 2009 after falling to another enemy: PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Alluding to the military tradition of carrying a soldier's flag-draped casket on horse-drawn caisson, then marching the remains to the grave by six pallbearers clad in uniform, Valdez has draped the McNay's exhibition space in a series of funereal scenes. But the terrain extends from the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery to the South Side neighborhoods where Valdez and his friend grew up.

Soldiers carry the casket pass a meat market advertising carnitas and barbacoa; the flag-draped remains are passed by a VIA bus as the soldiers march down the middle of a street; in front of a small bungalow the pallbearers pause, as if delivering the dead to the heart of the barrio. Accompanying the series is Home, a video by Valdez that amplifies the surrealist aura of the exhibition. Superimposed on filmed locations that mirror and extend the locales of the paintings, a hovering draped flag passes slowly over the frame, before resting in front of a home. Playing throughout is The Pogues' song about a young man's disillusionment with war, "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda."

But the focus of this ambitious exhibition is a single painting, a portrait of John which Valdez began before his friend died. In fatigues and helmet, he looks out, distressed, from the fogs of war at something hidden to the viewer. The expression of sadness and the weight of knowledge recall Spanish baroque paintings of saints and remind of Valdez's earlier allusions to religious symbolism: his early series of boxers references the Stations of the Cross. The painting, however, does not point towards a transcendental reading, but to a distressing experience that threatens many.

Approximately 18 veterans take their own lives each day; to date, more U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have died by suicide than in combat. But their deaths are not considered combat-related by the military. During these conflicts, our soldiers have served multiple tours that were unthinkable in other wars — six, eight in a row. Those who joined up out of high school, or after college, have grown up at war. What price are we asking of our children, to become an American hero?

America's Finest/Excerpts for John

Noon-5pm Sun
10am-4pm Tue, Wed, Fri
10am-9pm Thu
10am-5pm Sat
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
(210) 824-5368
Through January 27

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