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Vincent Valdez describes his City paintings as “symbols of modern American society.” The City I (2015–16), a monumental, four-part canvas, portrays a group of adults and children in Ku Klux Klan garb on a bluff overlooking a glowing metropolis at night. The black and white palette recalls the look of historical photographs or old movies, but details such as an iPhone and a Chevrolet truck situate the work firmly in the present day. The scenes depicted in this work and in The City II (2016), which shows a pile of mattresses amidst discarded trash, are invented.  However, as the Texas-born Valdez points out, this underscores their continued relevance and ubiquity: “This could be any city in America. These individuals could be any Americans. There is a false sense that these threats were, or are, contained at the peripheries of society and in small rural communities. It is possible that they are city politicians, police chiefs, parents, neighbors, community leaders, academics, church members, business owners, etc. This is the most frightening aspect of it all.”

Organized by Veronica Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Blanton Museum

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
Photo by Peter Molick, courtesy the artist and David Shelton Gallery, Houston

Vincent Valdez has described his City paintings as “symbols of modern American society.” The City I (2015–16), a monumental, four-part canvas, portrays a group of men, women, and a toddler in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods on a bluff overlooking a glowing metropolis at night. The black-and-white palette recalls the look of historical photographs and old movies, but details such as an iPhone, a can of Budweiser beer, and a new Chevrolet truck situate the work firmly in the present day. In spite of the work’s unsettling subject matter, the group engages in seemingly familiar activities: a woman on the left clutches a clipboard and pen like a teacher keeping track of her students, while a man checks his phone. We have interrupted their gathering. The group looks warily at us as we look at them; no one appears to be welcome here.

Beginning in the fall of 2015, Valdez worked for nearly a year to complete his City paintings. The scenes they depict are invented, but as the Texas artist points out, this underscores their continued relevance and ubiquity: “This could be any city in America. These individuals could be any Americans. There is a false sense that these threats were, or are, contained at the peripheries of society and in small rural communities. . . . It is possible that they are city politicians, police chiefs, parents, neighbors, community leaders, academics, church members, business owners, etcetera. This is the most frightening aspect of it all.”

Although The City I offers a symbolic representation of American society, in many ways, it can be understood as a contemporary history painting. Instead of responding to or commemorating a specific event, Valdez examines American history through a wider lens, looking at the ways that the past continues to inform the present. In doing so, he enters into dialogue—direct and indirect—with centuries of artists, writers, and musicians who have dealt with questions of identity, fear of the “other,” and the threat of violence. The inscription found in the lower-right corner, “For GSH and PG,” reveals two sources that helped inspire the work: Gil Scott-Heron’s powerful 1980 song, “The Klan,” and Philip Guston’s City Limits, a 1969 painting of cartoonish Klansmen that captivated Valdez when he saw it in an exhibition at the Blanton in 2014. “I am interested in the idea of this subject spanning three artists of diverse backgrounds and different generations,” Valdez explains.

A separate, single canvas, The City II (2016), extends these historical references even further back in time. Featuring a pile of mattresses amidst discarded trash next to a smoking steel drum, it is reminiscent of Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s early nineteenth-century depictions of mounds of corpses and metaphorically suggests that the city—and by extension, American society at large—continues to be in limbo.

As the author James Baldwin reminds us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Valdez’s paintings encourage us to face this group and ask ourselves: Who exactly are "us" and "them"? Have things really changed or not? Valdez elaborates: “This is where we find ourselves in twenty-first-century America: stuck in an endless stare-down.”

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Vincent Valdez, The City II, 2015-16 (detail)
oil on canvas, 74 x 90 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
Photo by Peter Molick, courtesy the artist and David Shelton Gallery, Houston