Vincent Valdez’s The City I (2015–16) is a four-part canvas that portrays a group in Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods on a bluff overlooking a 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 parent holds a child, a woman clutches a clipboard like a teacher keeping track of her students, and 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.”
The KKK has a long history of violent acts and intimidation targeting African Americans as well as Mexican Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, Jews, and Catholics. Valdez made his City paintings in response not only to the Klan, however, but also to the structural racism embedded in American cities and their design.
The City I and The City II can also be understood as contemporary history paintings. 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 2015. “I am interested in the idea of this subject spanning three artists of diverse backgrounds and different generations,” Valdez explains. “How many more generations of American artists will need to tackle the subject of the Klan?“
A separate, single canvas, The City II (2016), depicts a pile of mattresses amidst discarded trash next to a smoking steel drum. According to the artist, this painting is a symbolic representation of The City I. Reminiscent of Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s early nineteenth-century depictions of mounds of corpses, it 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.”
Organized by Veronica Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Blanton Museum of Art
The City was acquired for the Blanton’s permanent collection with support from 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.
Major funding for the Contemporary Project is provided by Suzanne McFayden.
Vincent Valdez, The City II, 2016 (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