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.