Installation view of Vincent Valdez: The City at the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Purchase through the generosity of Guillermo C. Nicolas and James C. Foster in honor of Jeanne and Michael Klein, with additional support from Jeanne and Michael Klein and Ellen Susman in honor of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2017. © Vincent Valdez
Revisiting Vincent Valdez’s The City:
Critical Moments of Silence and Reflection
in Times of Distortion and Chaos
By ANDREA LEPAGE
Vincent Valdez’s “The City” has received a wide array of media coverage since its opening at the Blanton Museum of Art on July 17, 2018. In October 2016, I wrote a piece for PaintThisDesert when "The City" was on view at the David Shelton Gallery in Houston, Texas. Since then, the Blanton Museum of Art (UT Austin) purchased Valdez’s 30-foot-long painting depicting fourteen members of the Ku Klux Klan who stand in as allegorical representations of a longstanding and prevailing system of white supremacy in the United States. The hooded baby—cradled in a mother’s arms—leaves the viewer with the uncomfortable reminder that hate is transmitted seamlessly from one generation to the next.
The intimidating hooded figures loom larger-than-life over the viewer and nearly obscure the distant gleaming city from which the composition takes its name. I pointed out in an essay written for the Blanton Museum’s gallery guide that Valdez’s painting calls for a visual comparison between overt and easily recognizable forms of racism (the Klan) and more covert and hidden forms (the city plan).
Valdez’s inscription, “For PG & GSH,” located in the lower right corner acknowledges the prevalence of both manifestations. In paying homage to Philip Guston’s 1969 “City Limits” and Gil Scott-Heron’s 1980 visceral rendition of The Klan, Valdez inserts himself into a multi-generational artistic lineage alongside a painter and a musician who also opposed the Klan and their ideology.
Vincent Valdez in his studio, 2016. © Michael Stravato
“I hold very firm in my belief today that art and artists can still play a social role and that art can provide very crucial, critical moments of silence and reflection during moments of immense distortion and chaos.” - Vincent Valdez
When the viewer confronts Valdez’s monumental painting, the eye first settles and lingers on the Klan members, infamous for their systematic and deadly targeting of mainly African American communities but also Latinos, Catholics, Jewish people, immigrants, and members of the LGBT community. Valdez discussed the disjunction between the beauty of their rendering and the horror of the Klan’s actions with journalist Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s “Latino USA” on the opening night at the Blanton Museum of Art. “Full blown raw reality is supposed to hit you. I lure you in with that beauty and I keep you there just enough so that you aren’t distracted within two seconds and back on your cell phone,” Valdez said. “If I can keep your attention, draw you in and keep you there, then that’s when the power of art really starts to unfold because you start to think critically.”
Should attention shift to a cell phone, viewers will be met with a disconcerting reflection of themselves in the image of a Klansman who casually checks his phone.
Close looking through the peaked hoods brings into high relief the significance of the gridded city in the background. Like the Klan members whose images encapsulate many forms of overt racism, the portrait of the city in the distance also assumes an allegorical role in the painting. City designs throughout the country play a key part in the systematic disenfranchisement of communities of color and immigrants.
In discussing the point with Hinojosa, Valdez targeted a few of the many elements that are part of a whole system that disadvantages communities of color. County jails, high-density housing projects, and liquor stores are disproportionately placed in low income neighborhoods. Access to high-quality educational and health resources, on the other hand, are largely absent from the same communities.
Underscoring the invisibility of some parts of the larger system of disenfranchisement, Valdez questioned, “Who gets trees and parks and playgrounds? Who gets access to these things?” His question conjures the image of the toddler whose pointing gesture seems to recruit the viewer to participate in a lifestyle that will ultimately support his ability to thrive.
The Blanton Museum of Art also purchased the pendant piece, “The City II” (2016), which features a desolate dumping ground populated by abandoned mattresses, furniture, and television sets. “The City II” has received significantly less attention than its more jarring companion piece, yet, it is crucial in understanding a key theme that unites the multi-panel installation: American consumerism directly supports the maintenance of white supremacy.
The iPhone, baby Nikes, special edition Budweiser beer can, and late model Chevrolet serve to locate the painting in the present. But these details set alongside the cast off possessions piled high in “The City II” also remind the viewer that the American drive to consume exacerbates and maintains vast racial and economic divides. “For far too long it’s been too easy for America to avoid the conversation about racism and how it is so embedded in our American DNA and our way of life,” Valdez said.
Valdez began painting “The City” in 2015, during Barack Obama’s presidency. Now viewed in the context of the current administration, we might ask whether “The City” themes resonate more with today’s audience. By no means are individual or structural racism new to this nation. Nonetheless, discussions about white supremacy, structural racism, and xenophobia have reentered our conversations with alarming normalcy since the November 2016 election.
If Valdez’s “The City” resonates more today in the midst of tweetstorms, inhumane immigrant child detainments, and continued killings of unarmed black men and women, it is because now, more than ever, we require critical moments of silence and reflection in times of political distortion and chaos.
Vincent Valdez, The City I, 2015–16 (detail). Oil on canvas, 74 x 360 in. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of Guillermo C. Nicolas and James C. Foster in honor of Jeanne and Michael Klein, with additional support from Jeanne and Michael Klein and Ellen Susman in honor of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2017. © Vincent Valdez. Photo by Peter Molick.
Vincent Valdez’s “The City” can be seen at the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, through October 28, 2018.
Andrea Lepage is associate professor of art history at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. As a scholar of Latino/a and Chicano/a visual culture coming out of the west, Lepage explores contemporary art as a form of social practice. Her many published writings include the essay “Reconstructing the Curriculum at El Taller Siqueiros, c. 1977: Judith Baca’s ‘Intensive Course in Mural Painting in Cuernavaca’ ” in “BACA: Art, Collaboration and Mural Making” (Angel City Press, 2017).
Vincent Valdez, Details of The City I (2015-2016). All photos courtesy of the artist and David Shelton Gallery.
Paint This Desert invites Andrea Lepage, associate professor of art history at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to share her thoughts on an artist she has championed, Vincent Valdez. Lepage, as a scholar, and Valdez, as an artist, explore contemporary art that supports the aesthetic that gave Latino murals in the west a legacy of social practice.
By Andrea Lepage
On August 26, 2016, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained national attention for protesting police brutality against people of color. Kaepernick sat during the National Anthem, and in later games he took a knee. In a statement issued to the media, he reasoned that, “When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I'll stand.”
The following week, Vincent Valdez’s painting titled “The City,” which depicts a Ku Klux Klan gathering set within a junkyard on the edge of town, debuted at the David Shelton Gallery in Houston as part of the current exhibition “Vincent Valdez: The Beginning is Near (Part I).” Conceived independently of Kaepernick’s protest, “The City” employs the flag and also the American eagle to question the promise of freedom for all in the United States.
A U.S. flag patch adheres to a white sleeve and an American eagle is partially visible on a peaked hood. The most salient symbol appears in the form of a special-edition Budweiser beer can emblazoned with the word “America” and held by a Klansman whose other hand juts out of the painting in a salute that evokes a long history of white supremacism. While the text on the limited edition beer can defines the U.S. as “Indivisible since 1776,” Valdez’s painting speaks to a nation still very much divided.
As the viewer of The City stands face-to-face with an assembly of fourteen hooded Klansmen and Klanswomen, the thirty-foot-long, multi-panel composition presents an uncomfortable vision of the nation. Composed entirely of grey tones, this scene takes as its starting point vintage imagery of the Klan. However, details including a Chevrolet truck, an iPhone, a cellphone tower and a Pikachu toy held in the hands of a hooded baby make disturbingly clear that this scene takes place in our own time. The mundane tasks in which these individuals are engaged—gossiping, checking phones, drinking beer and looking off into the distance—result in an overall impression far-removed from the terror typically associated with Klan imagery.
The painting draws upon the recognizable imagery of the Klan as a strategy to underscore the persistence of racism in the United States. In an interview, Valdez described the piece as metaphorical. He explained, “The doctrine which drives the Klan [...] is all around us and is still being passed down from generation to generation.” “The City” suggests that we can locate racism in the most normal places: classrooms, boardrooms, convenience stores, on the streets or in the words of prominent politicians. As The City makes apparent, the hoods merely make white supremacism easier to spot.
Valdez’s early title for the piece, “For Guston and Gil Scott-Heron” ties The City to Philip Guston’s Klan imagery produced in the 1930s and 1960s, as well as to Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The Klan,” which features this phrase that Valdez identified as essential for his conceptualization of “The City.”
“Father, mother, sister, brother, stand by me
It’s not so easy to be free”
The City offers an opportunity to investigate forms of systemic racism that extend well beyond hate groups like the KKK. While Valdez’s hooded figures take center stage, the title of the piece reveals his greater interest in their backdrop: the city itself.
In an interview, Valdez noted that urban planning “has for over two centuries kept populations divided through borders and boundaries that are determined by economic class and skin color.” Valdez continued, “The design of many American cities today still reflects segregation [in the] plotting and location of train tracks, city dumps, lands claimed through eminent domain, city jails and police stations, storage and industry sectors, underfunded schools and housing and even in the placement of parks and trees.”
In a statement to the media, Kaepernick also united past and present violence against communities of color in the following terms, “As I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in the past, what’s going on in the country currently, [I’ve learned that] these aren’t new situations. This isn’t new ground.” Valdez’s “The City” entices us to gather information about a past that has provided the language and the framework for a present time still marked by racist and discriminatory ideologies.
To quote a line in the original text of the National Anthem, here’s hoping for a time in this nation “when freemen shall stand.”
Vincent Valdez, The City I (2015-2016).
Vincent Valdez: The Beginning is Near (Part I) is on view at the David Shelton Gallery, Houston, through October 8, 2016.
Photo and captions by Nancy Good.
"As though launching a fiery javelin, The Man appears to fight the very fire that threatens to consume him," writes photographer Nancy Good, who captured these images at Burning Man, Nevada's Black Rock Desert dreamlike event. This year artists were encouraged to explore the similarities between 15th-century Florence and the festival, now in its 30th year.