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).
Story and photos by G. JAMES DAICHENDT
In 2002, Israel approved the construction of the most infamous wall in the world: the Israeli West Bank Barrier. The State of Israel intends for it to serve as a security blockade against terrorist attacks. The Palestinians on the other side of the wall see it in a negative light. To those who live in the West Bank the wall has become an unfortunate tool that has created a form of racial segregation that cuts off wages, social services, farmland, and schools from those who live there. While the towns along the wall have limited violence, the wall has also blighted many Palestinian villages.
This summer I had the opportunity to cross the security checkpoint from Israel into the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where the street artist Banksy has established an installation and hotel, appropriately named the Walled Off Hotel (humorously sounding like the renowned and luxurious Waldorf Hotel). The fully functioning hotel and art gallery claims to have the worst view in the world; that serves as a smart critique of Middle Eastern politics.
Banksy has long been interested in the West Bank Barrier, having painted several large pieces on it over the years. His views are quite obvious, stating that the wall "essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.” To bring attention to this frustrating circumstance, Banksy’s hotel is both a commercial venture and a critique, adequately capturing the dilemma the artist often falls into as a populist who makes accessible imagery yet strives for larger ideals. Encouraging tourists to cross the checkpoint, the hotel leverages the artist’s popularity to draw visitors to Palestine, something they may be frightened to do if they watch western news.
The hotel opened its doors during the winter of 2017 directly opposite a section of the wall that predated it by 15 years. The dirt road is now paved, and this small section of street appears to have been slightly upgraded because of the venture. These minor improvements may be considered both negative and positive changes since many locals are obviously not fans of the wall and would prefer to not normalize it.
The nine-room hotel houses an art gallery featuring Palestinian artists, a gift shop that sells Banksy-approved pieces (some painted by local artists), and a graffiti shop that hosts workshops so visitors can paint the wall. However, there is a lot of sadness in this part of Palestine and such a spectacle seems odd and insensitive. This juxtaposition is not lost in the design; you can even spend the night in the hotel bunker rooms that can be reserved for a discounted price.
There is reverence and apprehension for the hotel by locals. Cake$, a Palestinian street artist, says the “Banksy Hotel is like big white male (instead of whale) as Greyson Perry told once about art market.” It’s a huge force and one that clearly attracts a number of international artists, including a recent visit by Lush Sux, who painted several huge pieces around the area of the hotel (and a few for the gift shop).
Art for The Walled Off Hotel. Click on photo to enlarge.
The creations and artwork within the hotel are really what appeal to Banksy fans. The lobby functions as a giant installation with several small pieces curated around the space.
Visual overload is an understatement; there is a lot to take in. Two bowls placed next to one another feature fish that want to kiss but are held back by their isolated locations. Another three-dimension installation features a faux cat attempting to capture a bird locked in a cage, while a painting opposite the gift shop depicts young children climbing over St. Peter’s gates to gain entry into heaven.
Notice the theme? The “on-the-nose” messaging is part of the frustration with Banksy but it’s also why he’s universally understood and fun to engage with.
As one peers through the windows of the hotel, the contrast of the ironically luxurious interior with the gray slabs of concrete that make up the wall just outside is stunning. The walls feel insurmountable and the sections continue in an unending rhythm down the street and out of sight. The lookout/sniper towers that reach up higher in particular areas reinforce a trapped feeling, much like if you were to fall into a well and several enemies watched you from the top to ensure you could not escape. Yet there is an escapist mentality inside the hotel and it’s very easy to forget where you are.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has layers of history, and while this wall was intended to prevent attacks, it had dreadful effects on several communities. Cake$ reminded me that, “Painting the wall in Bethlehem is like overpainting the horizon.” The Walled Off Hotel is so much more than a painting on a wall; it’s a political statement that encourages people to cross the border, support local artists, and stands as a symbol of protest, while simultaneously functioning as a profitable business that is booked solid, much like Banksy himself.
G. James Daichendt is Dean of the Colleges and Professor of Art History at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of 'Kenny Scharf: In Absence of Myth, Shepard Fairey: Artist/Professional/Vandal" and "The Urban Canvas: Street Around the World."
Murals on the West Bank barrier commenting on Middle Eastern politics. Click on photo to enlarge.
Directed by Rudy Valdez
Los Angeles Premiere at LALIFF 2018
By María Margarita López
On opening night of LALIFF, director Rudy Valdez took the audience on an emotional journey. The first time filmmaker’s feature debut, “The Sentence,” is a deeply personal documentary about his sister, Cindy Shank, and the impact a 15-year prison sentence had on her family; husband Adam and their three daughters, four-year-old Autumn, two-year-old Ava, and newborn Annalis.
The film begins with home movies that were made to record key moments so Cindy could see what she missed in her daughters’ lives while she was in federal prison. These moments turn into a story that resonates with thousands of families across the U.S. who are affected by “the girlfriend problem,” a term that refers to Reagan-era mandatory minimum sentencing laws that restricted the judge’s ability to use discretion in sentencing.
These laws resulted in harsher sentences for women who were convicted of conspiracy and imprisoned for crimes committed by their boyfriends. Between 1980 and 2014, the United States realized a 700 percent increase in the number of women behind bars, according to the non-profit The Sentencing Project, some of the data the filmmaker found during rigorous research. The minimum sentence was 15 years.
Cindy’s case was not unusual. For many women it did not matter to the courts if they’d turned their lives around. Cindy paid the price for her deceased ex-boyfriend’s crimes and the film takes her personal story and creates a window into broader issues including the effects of mass incarcerations, the prison industrial complex, and the hurdles involved in getting a sentence commuted.
In the hands of Valdez, the doc also delivers a story of love. It is moving to see how daughters miss a mother, and the lengths a family goes to in order to maintain ties across time and distance.
Director Valdez does not sugar coat difficult issues, but respects his subject’s willingness to participate. (No other director would have been able to achieve this level of trust from these subjects). His nieces’ raw emotions hit the audience with full force, as does the candor from the rest of his family. Valdez accomplishes much as a one-man crew, first starting to film with consumer-grade phones and cameras, then moving his way up to robust Canon equipment by the end of the decade.
Valdez’ evolution as a filmmaker parallels his growth as an advocate for his sister’s clemency. He organically informs the audience of the laws, policies and technicalities underlying his argument this is unjust sentencing. Neither Cindy nor the film makes excuses for why she is serving time, but the facts presented in this emotional story, and watching those girls grow up without their mother, calls into question if $64 billion a year on the warehousing of inmates under these laws is money wisely spent.
“The Sentence” will be released by HBO later this year.
María Margarita López is film producer and co-founder of AjuuaEntertainment. She is based in Los Angeles.
Donna Beam Gallery
Through October 26, 2018
FOUNDER + WRITER
G. James Daichendt