A Conversation with Vincent Valdez

Want to know more about the artists behind the dazzling prints in Estampas de la raza? Exhibition curator Jennifer Dasal spoke with some of the featured artists about their work, their inspirations, and their experiences. First up: Vincent Valdez.
Vincent Valdez, Suspect: Dark Clothes, Dark Hair, Dark Eyes, Dark Skin, 2002, screen print, 22 x 16 ¼ in., Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Harriett and Ricardo Romo, 2010.95, © 2013 Vincent Valdez

Jennifer Dasal: This exhibition zeroes in on contemporary prints created by Latino and Hispanic artists. How do you define your own unique cultural heritage?

Vincent Valdez: I am a third-generation American born of distant Mexican and Spanish descent. I acknowledge and respect the cultural and political struggles of the Chicano movement that came before me, but I [believe] the proper term for me is “Hispanic.” Perhaps I no longer relate to any of these, or perhaps I am all of the above. Such is the never-ending dilemma of the Mexican American.

JD: What is it about printmaking that makes it so conducive to portraying the larger issues of struggle, traditions, identity, and so forth?

VV: Printmaking is such a raw form of communication and protest. It is grassroots and has been a very, very important way of communicating to the masses throughout world history. It can be produced in one’s kitchen or in a professional studio. It is accessible, and it allows the artist to mass produce images rapidly. The effectiveness of mass communication and information through printmaking was quickly realized and adapted by the business and advertising worlds for different purposes.

JD: What makes a work of art specifically Chicano, Latino, Hispanic, etc.? Is it simply the cultural makeup of the artist who created it, or is it something more?

VV: The cultural makeup of the artist is not reason enough to label art as Chicano, Hispanic, etc.

Some artists specifically state that their work is a continuation of the Chicano art movement. Some artists state that their work is a celebration of their culture, family, or community and focus on traditionally based imagery of the genre. But what happens when an American-born artist who happens to be Mexican refuses to be labeled with any identity at all? For example, I recently completed a series of paintings titled The Strangest Fruit. It is based after the almost entirely unknown and unrecognized history of lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States. Although based off of a historical event, each of the works displays a contorted contemporary brown male body wearing disheveled denim jeans, Nikes, hoodies, NBA apparel, etc. The noose, once a powerful and violent American symbol, is now just as prevalent as ever in unspoken terms such as mass incarceration, poverty, the war on drugs, military wars, immigration, etc. To me, these images are all very American before they are ever Mexican or Chicano only.

Historically speaking, it may have been easier to look at a piece by a “cultural” artist and identify it as such because of the foreign imagery displayed. But now, this is becoming more complicated because of the infinite possibilities and experiences that “Latino” artists can present their work in. How could we term a painting of minimalist dots on canvas as Chicano art simply because the [artist’s] last name ends in “-ez”? I feel strongly that many young Latino artists are now attempting to breach these very rigid borders that have been established not only by mainstream society but also by the contemporary art world. So, essentially, it should be the artist who gets to decide what cultural context or category to place the work in.

JD: What artistic traditions or histories are you pulling from in your works, if any?

VV: I focus primarily on the tradition of painting and drawing, usually executed on a monumental scale. I have now started to experiment with film and three-dimensional drawings. There are numerous influences on my work: the world around me, video games, cinema, historical political posters, the endless myths and illusions of heroes throughout time, contemporary America … In terms of specific artists whose work inspires me the most: Phillip Guston, Peter Saul, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Vija Celmins , Paula Rego, Paul Cadmus, and Ben Shahn. Almost all of which were or are very important printmakers during their careers.

The political content of the Chicano art movement played a huge role for inspiring me during my teenage years. I started off as a muralist as a young child, in love with the Mexican muralists, the East L.A. muralists in the 1970—’80s, and with my books of the WPA artists in the 1940s. Films left a deep impression on my awareness of images conveying messages to the masses on a monumental scale. I have never really abandoned these early influences.

JD: How did you begin your career as a printmaker? What drew you (or still draws you) toward printmaking?

VV: Yo Soy-ee Blaxican [in the exhibition] was my first time ever printing. I was fresh out of Rhode Island School of Design and had an opportunity to try my hand at lithography. I was hooked. It’s a very tedious and somewhat complicated process, but with such rewarding results. I continue to create new editions of lithographs and serigraphs every year. Because I tend to work on a massive scale, it really provides me with the opportunity to work on an intimate scale with quicker production turnarounds. I’ve always tended to approach printmaking with a willingness to experiment and aim for different results than I would get from a charcoal drawing or oil painting.

JD: What is something special that viewers might miss about your work, or something they might not immediately see

VV: John is one of the works I have in the exhibition. John Holt Jr. was my best friend since the age of 9. He was a combat medic in Iraq and died in 2010. This portrait is based off of the last time that I saw him, at his mother’s house in San Antonio while he was on leave. He was dressed in full combat gear for a photo shoot that I was doing [with him]. He displayed this expression when I asked him about his experiences in Iraq. Using the title John commemorates him but also signifies the usage of the term “John Doe.” He is the endless numbers of soldiers who have walked in his boots.

Yo Soy-ee Blaxican [I am Blaxican] is a portrait of my younger brother Daniel. He coined this term when I asked him how he identified himself. He refused the labels Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican, or Latino, and gave the title as a response in homage to the death of Tupac Shakur. The image depicts the “New Skool” generation: from the barrio but trying to leave it behind, [wearing] hip-hop gear [that] signifies he identifies more with black culture than his own, and the golden arches from McDonald’s defines the modern American landscape. He is a product of his environment but also of the history that came before him. Reinventing his identity ironically carries on the Chicano history, as it imitates the same need for self-identity and proclamation of existence.

JD: What was the most fulfilling or unexpected aspect of your experience as a part of Estampas de la raza?

VV: The exhibition covers a span of two or three generations of printmakers, so it’s interesting to identify how the content and techniques over a few decades relate, differ, and are evolved.

JD: What is it about this exhibition that is important to you? Why is a show like this so necessary?

VV: This exhibition provides insight into the legacy of printmaking. It shows that it is alive and well and relevant. It also provides an audience with an educational aspect of the legacy of Chicano printmaking for social and political purposes and awareness. Above all it helps to further the notion that Mexican Americans and Chicanos share the same qualities as all other Americans do, for change, for equality, for protest, for love of family and community, for pride and hope, and for the experience of being American.

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