Vincent Valdez: The Beginning is Near (Part I), most recently presented at David Shelton Gallery, is deftly timely and a bold step by both artist Vincent Valdez and gallerist David Shelton.
For some viewers, the first and immediate response to the exhibition's large-scale, multi-panel monochrome oil painting is to look away.
The subject matter of the painting is unfortunately familiar, though its implications are extremely complex, deep-rooted, and multifaceted. In a word, the grandiose thirty-foot-long painting, entitled The City I, as well as the presentation of the work itself, is confronting. Less confronting, however, is the exhibition's brilliantly executed accompanying publication, designed in the style of traditional newsprint, intelligently aiding the viewer’s visual inquiry.
In fact, the first lines of the aforementioned publication readily addresses this first response to turn away from the confronting and confounding aspects of the Valdez’s painting — it reads:
“‘Some say the Klan today should just be ignored. Frankly, I’d like to do that. I’m tired of wasting my time on the KKK. I have better things to do. But history won’t let me ignore current events. Those who would use violence to deny others their rights can’t be ignored.’
– Julian Bond, historian and civil rights worker
In her essay Devils and Men: The Ku Klux Klan in American Art, professor and art historian Andrea Lepage places The City I (2015 - 2016) in the context of the history of the Klan and expertly sets Valdez and this painting appropriately along the timeline of art history.
After its initial founding in the 1860s under the guise of a political initiative and its subsequent suppression by federal law enforcement, the Klan powerfully re-emerged in 1915 with new religious tenets and added to its violent agenda cross burnings. This was an extreme addition to the already well-established practice of cruelty against African Americans. This social conflict integral to our country raged in the midst of extreme tension in the global political climate and the during nascent stages of the First World War — the harbinger of far-reaching and radical political, economic, and social consequences in the world-wide arena.
The most recent and still-active manifestation of the KKK was born in the 1950s during yet another time of radical social change and the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Practices of the KKK at this time focused on direct opposition to the movement via violence and murder, energized by hate and illusory ideals of white supremacy. Presently, estimates of membership in America range from 3,000 - 6,000 active participants, though today’s news and media outlets indicate far greater numbers in allegiance to this contagion of hate.
This is the circumstance in which Valdez works. In The City I we see that the artist masterfully humanizes the complacent misery of present-day America through visual expression. As is characteristic of any true artist, Valdez grounds the subject matter of his painting in the context in which he (and we), and it, exists - painting and subject both are products of the American experience. He makes clearly visible the so-called "Invisible Empire" — the Ku Klux Klan. Free from the terror of violence visualized or intimidation from imagined imposing figures, The City I illuminates for us the willful and self-imposed ignorance we are apt to subject ourselves to and details with oil on canvas the intrinsic marks of every American experience: imposed borders, propagated misinformation, insidious brand marketing, and the sharing of blind beliefs and values across generations. This painting confronts us with the reality that the KKK (self-proclaimed as the “GREAT CAUSE”) is a manufactured, non-illusory product of our country — the KKK is Americana brought to life.
The true “great cause,” however, is assumed by the artist — he alerts and compels the viewer toward a greater awareness about the true condition of suffering which plagues our country in looking at this misery with clarity. Without necessarily inciting the viewer towards change, the artist beautifully, and honestly, highlights a shared present American condition. At the minimum, Valdez offers, through his artwork, a moment for viewers to come to truths about his or her respective experience through the auspices of loaded yet familiar imagery. Valdez strategically inserts himself with this large-scale work into an already lengthy, multi-generational dialogue among American artists about the resistance to race equity and the existence of the Klu Klux Klan by depicting this particularly dark aspect of America.
Too, though we might acknowledge the progressiveness of Houston, we have to simultaneously recognize the conservative Southern environment in which this presentation has been made. With this effort, Shelton brings to the rhythm of his exhibition program an accountability to communication — a trait rather rare among gallerists. In so doing, Shelton assumes as much integrity in his decisive presentation of this non-commercial, museum-quality artwork as the artist via illuminatingly complex, touchy subject matter currently floating beneath the surface of our collective American consciousness.
If Valdez is the source of the message and his painting brings it forth, then David Shelton Gallery is the forum and Shelton fits the role of a messenger too. In fact, the word that comes to mind more succinctly is “herald.” The Beginning is Near (Part I) is a strong effort where the magic and synergy of art and representation is most definitely at play — where artist, gallerist, exhibition, and publication meet to herald the imminent sea change to come.