Vincent Valdez’s recently debuted painting The City I is tucked away on the second floor of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, perhaps to shield certain visitors from its controversial nature, but also to make a metaphoric point: racism doesn’t need to be front and center for it to be alive and well. In the case of Valdez’s artwork, a large format four-panel painting depicting 14 fully garbed Klansmen—including a baby cradled in the arms of its hooded mother—his piece dominates the space in a semi-hidden room, away from the main art exhibit taking place on the ground floor. If you’re willing to turn a few corners, you will be met with the defiant stares of larger-than-life hatred glaring back at you, which could also be said for our country’s ever-present racial tension and discord. On the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, how far have we come as a democracy, a nation of immigrants, a post-slavery society, and where exactly are we going, especially if we choose not to admit that there is an enemy among us, and possibly within us?
The Trump era has been viewed as a swift catalyst for much of the social divide brought to the forefront since the 2016 election, which happened to take place just a few months after the now 40-year old Valdez completed this project. According to the video interview looping across the way from his main painting (and adjacent to the smaller work titled The City II), Valdez created this KKK-themed piece just as the world started dramatically shifting. It is indeed eerie to imagine that these oils were drying at a time when much of the country assumed Hillary Clinton would be our next president. Almost two years after The City I was completed, and one year after the events in Charlottesville took place, the artist’s rendering of frightening white robes is an easy substitute for contemporary khaki pants. How did Vincent Valdez know such an unsettling, seemingly outdated, image would come right on time?
In certain ways, The City I, feels somewhat over the top, with its teddybear-clutching, finger-pointing baby, aggressively piercing through the viewer’s sternum when getting too close, or the man with a can of Budweiser in one hand, Nazi saluting with the other, his elevated arm rising behind a woman with blond tresses spilling out from her white hood, those perfectly manicured nails and charm bracelet reminiscent of a happy Texas housewife. The one Klansman who willingly shows his face is conveniently obstructed by another person’s hood, his partially revealed visage as handsome as a Hollywood actor’s. And though I searched the eyeholes of each masked member, to get a sense of who these people were (did I know them personally?), I was most drawn to their hands: one wearing a wedding band, others sporting collegiate rings or strange baubles that signified neither marriage or school affiliation. There is a “Last Supper” religiosity to this painting, with many of the individuals making saintly hand gestures which further play on the dramatic intensity and perverse Christian morality of the subject matter.
Beyond this Ku Klux Klan gathering on the outskirts of town, sprawls a city without skyscrapers—an electronic grid. A criss-cross of lights, structures, systems, and institutions: society itself. This grid is only faintly lit under the pitch black sky; instead a nearby radio tower twinkles like a constellation which fell to Earth, as the beacon lights of a Chevrolet truck guide the way toward these assembled KKK members. The glow of an iPhone in the hands of one Klansman seems like a curious, somewhat amusing choice: even a Neo-Nazi values the sleek design of an Apple product.
Details of American consumerism—a hyper-masculine pickup truck, discarded tires and beer cans, a hound getting at something in front of the mud-soaked (or is it blood-soaked?) vehicle—have a much stronger impact when viewing the main painting’s smaller sibling The City II, which depicts a heap of junk, dead durable goods piled high on the same abandoned bluff overlooking the cold grid off in the distance. Worn mattresses, broken furniture, a bashed-in television—discarded stuff—surrounded by puddles of mud, seems to symbolize a funeral pyre of the middle class. Is this why a certain sliver of White America is so angry? Because being middle class is no longer a God-given right?
While watching the video of Valdez, I am struck by his admission that, as a child, TV commercials selling these very consumer products never featured actors who looked like him, a Mexican American from San Antonio. It indeed seems like these durable goods, or ownership of any sort, are almost exclusively geared toward white America: in 2018, the percentage of African Americans who own homes is the same as in 1968. Such a stark statistic begs the question: what has changed in the past 50 years? According to Valdez, not much. Which is why he chose to paint both The City I and The City II in black and white, to blur the line between past and present. “We are the United States of Amnesia,” he quips, quoting Gore Vidal on the video I am watching. Before it loops once again, I am left with his simple statement in summation: “Who we are today is who we become tomorrow.”
Q&A With Artist Vincent Valdez
Q: Which painters / artists have most greatly influenced you and your work?
VV: George Bellows, Otto Dix, Philip Guston, Käthe Kollwitz, to name a few. All different eras and genres, but with a long legacy of drawing and painting the figure symbolically and metaphorically. Even though they’re deceased, we speak the same visual language. And then there’s Peter Saul, who’s still alive, and has always gone against the grain without fearing the consequences.
Other than painting and drawing, let’s talk about other art mediums: what do you like to read, watch, or listen to?
VV: Literature and music are my main sources of inspiration in and out of the studio. I’m currently reading Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and just finished James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for the fifth time. I’ve been listening to Dream Baby Dream, a 1979 post-synth song by Suicide. It’s also the name of my upcoming series which will premiere next month. I play the trumpet as well—helps me blow off steam and clear out the paint fumes I’m inhaling all day while working in the studio!
Did you experience culture shock when you moved from San Antonio to Providence for college at Rhode Island School of Design?
VV: When I was 16 or 17, I thought the whole world was like Texas. In Providence people would ask me how long I had been in this country, or if I spoke English. This really skewed my personal perception, but it also helped shape my views on the world. I started painting murals at age 9 in San Antonio’s low-income housing projects, which was my first real art education. As a lower-middle class kid, it was hands-on experience in an invisible community which faced many struggles. At RISD, I was in a community filled with many resources, but many of the professors couldn’t relate to my subject matter. I used images to impact people and make the invisible visible, which let me examine notions of identity and place in America.
You finished The City when our nation’s first black president was still in office, and it was assumed by many that Democrat Hillary Clinton would be next in the White House. At a time when things ostensibly seemed to be looking up socially, politically and culturally for America, what sparked the idea to do a disturbing KKK-themed painting?
VV: I started this piece Fall 2015 because it was my way of confronting the long, brutal history of racism. It’s absurd to call us a post-racial society—the U.S. is painfully trapped between the myth of who we think we were and the reality of who we really are.
The City II, though smaller in scale and devoid of overt KKK images, is just as disturbing as The City I. Do you feel these paintings must be viewed as a coupling to appreciate the message of each one?
VV: These two paintings are visual partners, sharing the same horizon line. The City II is more powerfully symbolic of social erosion and decay; what has long been buried beneath the American landscape has now come to the surface. The discarded mattresses are like carcasses, and represent what’s been left behind—the end result of hundreds of years of oppression. The broken television is the most important symbol in The City II because it represents the broken state of mass information. In The City I, the Klan members are a photobomb, an overt and recognizable symbol of racism. And the city, way beyond, is the golden American Dream. But how is white supremacy entrenched in that dream? Who gets the resources? The trees and parks, the educational funding? Racism is both overt and covert, societally all-pervasive, right down to the labels detailed in the painting—Chevy, Nike, iPhone. Capitalism, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, are all agents of white supremacy. Originally, this painting was an homage to the painter Philip Guston and the poet and activist Gil Scott-Heron; they are two artists in a long legacy of American artists who critically observed the world around them
Regarding your 2013 series, The Strangest Fruit, I read in the NY Times article you wanted to draw attention to the thousands of Latinos lynched in the 19th and 20th centuries, a historical fact that might elude most Americans.Were you concerned that the KKK image in The City might perpetuate overlooked social injustices Latinos continue to face in the U.S.?
VV: The City presents a much larger non-binary question, beyond black versus white, us versus them, good versus bad. For too long, America has casually regarded racism as “those people” in “those places.” As an artist, my intention is to insert myself into a lineage of artists who have stepped up and spoken out against the patterns of racism in the nation. The Strangest Fruit pieces are hanging near The City in the museum, which was unplanned, but well-placed, because they also lend themselves as end results of unchecked white supremacy that shapes many of America’s political policies and power structures today. If there is one thing America has yet to confront, it is the truth. America excels at avoiding looking into a truthful mirror. The City is that mirror.
Q&A With Veronica Roberts (Blanton’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art)
Why is this piece personally important to you?
VR: A museum isn’t just a sanctuary for beauty, but a place which is meant to challenge us. I think it’s especially important for a university museum to show art which reflects our world by holding up a mirror to its visitors—even if it means grappling with the worst aspects of the human condition. I grew up in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic when the intersection of art and activism was spotlighted by such artists as Felix Gonzalez-Torres. That era deeply impacted me, along with strength and vitality of my socially conscious grandmother—she just recently turned 96.
What has been the most surprising response to The City?
VR: Some visitors have had audible reactions when walking into the gallery; people can be very startled and surprised by this work. I was struck to see a woman bawling outside the gallery after having seen both paintings, and she happened to be white. It was Vincent’s intention to implicate the viewer when looking at this work. It’s hard to get it out of your head.
In a city that regards itself as progressive—a blue dot in a red state—but largely white, with a largely segregated, invisible minority population, what conversation should be started by having this piece here in Austin?
VR: UT Professor Richard Reddick remarked at a recent community event here at the museum that it’s not enough to avoid derogatory language and have black or brown friends: racism is in the air we breathe and none of us are immune to it in this country. We must continually and actively fight it, and be willing to speak up—not just against individual acts of racism, but the institutional racism we all participate in. This painting is much bigger than the KKK. Vincent named this The City for a reason.
Do you think The City is more relevant in a museum in Central Texas rather than NY or LA?
VR: I’m not sure if it’s more relevant in Central Texas, but I do think it is more meaningful and significant. The museums on the coasts already show a lot of important art which focuses on social injustice, and I think Austin’s population (both the UT students and faculty, as well as the greater community) also deserves to be challenged by tough subject matter.
What has been your greatest challenge as a curator with debuting The City?
VR: Fear. It would be naive to think that such an emotionally charged painting would be received without the possibility of a strong reaction. Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting is an example of this. And there was also the fear of it being misunderstood, to be seen as somehow glorifying the KKK rather than trying to produce a complex conversation about racism, especially on social media, where misinformation runs rampant. The museum and university wanted to provide a context for The City and properly time its debut with as much care and thought possible: we really believe in this piece.
Both interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
“Vincent Valdez: The City” is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, 200 East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Austin, TX, through October 28, 2018.