Faculty and Community Perspectives

Vincent Valdez: The City

CHAPTER 4: Faculty and Community Perspectives

Faculty and Community Perspectives

In the fall of 2017, The Blanton hosted roundtable conversations about The City with faculty from diverse disciplines to seek their guidance, input, and expertise on how to make the most of the teaching opportunities around this work. In addition to making significant exhibition design and programmatic suggestions, several faculty members offered written reflections on the paintings.

Various community leaders have also worked to help us think about public programming, working with high school visitors, and other aspects of community engagement.  A series of “Community Conversations” is being organized and we encourage you to check our Programs/Events section as these events will be updated continuously with participant names and details. 

Visitors to the exhibition are also invited to share their responses on comment cards in the gallery space. Read a selection of responses in our “Public Responses to Vincent Valdez: The City” blog.

Robert H. Abzug, Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair of Jewish Studies, Professor of History and American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin 

The most impressive achievement of Valdez’s The City, aside from its purely painterly aspects, is the creation of the field of anxiety and fear that emanates from the painting and envelops the viewer. This is set within the context of contemporary America. The artist uses perhaps the most recognizable symbol of terror in the American lexicon—the Ku Klux Klan—as the organizing image of the series of panels, but that is only the beginning. In fact, the shock value of a line of Klan members hidden behind their robes recedes and becomes integrated with a collection of references to modern consumer society: the late-model pickup truck, the urban sprawl of lights in the distance, the branded items such as the cellphone and baby shoes, as well as the fifth panel of urban disarray and waste. This is definitely not Reconstruction or the 1920s. Even more powerful to me is the choice to bathe the image in monochromatic tones, which, rather than soothing the viewer as they might in another context, reflect the gray sense of fear that so many feel across the population.

This leads me to another point that underlines the subtlety of Valdez’s work: The Klan members, aside from the striking, evil presence of one eye of the apparent leader, seem as scared as they would make the viewer of the picture. The City can be considered a history painting, but it seems to me that its power is in extending a set of emotions created by the iconography of the Klan to a much more contemporary setting. Through the face-to-face confrontation with Klan members we are forced to face their fears and our own, face them as hidden but clearly frightened human beings, caught in the gray anxiety of the hour and surrounded by the goods and decay that surround us.

Where are we in this picture? The genius of Valdez’s approach is that we are indispensable to it; we are obliged to confront the atmosphere of the historical Klan as well as the contemporary Klan and arguably even more dangerous “white supremacist” militias. It is not surprising that a Latino artist might be compelled to raise this issue, one that is especially relevant to Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and Jews as the most common targets of hate groups like the KKK. The power of the painting, however, is that it also draws us into the picture as participants in a society that continues to breed fear, animosity, and violence. “We” may not be “them,” but are part of their universe in this painting.

Jillian Bontke M.Ed., LPC, ADL Austin Education Director

The Blanton’s thoughtful efforts to use art as a medium to encourage community dialogue about injustice, to inspire activism, and to promote empathic understanding is demonstrated through its Doing Social Justice school visits. During this past academic year alone, over 3,000 sixth through twelfth graders visited the Blanton to engage in conversations about bias, race and membership, immigration, mental health, and being an ally. AISD’s Office of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness, Anti-Defamation League staff, and the Blanton’s education team have worked collaboratively as we plan to introduce Vincent Valdez’s The City as a teaching tool. We have sought the help of Social/Emotional Learning experts, AISD’s ethnic studies team, and community leadership from Austin Justice Coalition to explore The City with high school students. We believe this piece has the power to inspire a new generation of students who understand difference from many perspectives and will work toward building a more equitable world.

Eddie Chambers, Professor of Art & Art History, The University of Texas at Austin 

Vincent Valdez’s The City  is a monumental work that eerily articulates many of our insecurities about the state of our society and our country in the closing years of the second decade of the twenty-first century. As viewers, we are perhaps struck by the deft ways in which Valdez has used a monochromatic palette, in which black and white, and the shades in between, are deployed to create a work that is remarkable in its reach, its scope, and its depth.

At first viewing, we seem to be presented with an assortment of hooded Klanspeople (the non-gendered plural noun is important, as the painting depicts Klanswomen and a Klan child, alongside the perhaps more historically familiar Klansmen). Valdez ensures that these hooded menaces are every bit as unsettling and disturbing to us as any of the more historical depictions of these personifications of American terror. Lest we be inclined to view the group portrait as something from previous, supposedly less enlightened times, Valdez ensures that we read the group as very much part of the here and now, by including, towards the center of the painting, a hooded menace tapping away at his smartphone, the light from the device reflecting in a ghostly, otherworldly way. We will each read the poses and activities of this motley assortment in different ways, but we will likely be struck by the symbolism of the smartphone, evoking as it does the use of social media in the contemporary age to further disseminate racist bile, oftentimes behind a cloak of anonymity.

Derek Epp, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, The University of Texas at Austin 

For anyone who thought that the Ku Klux Klan had been relegated to the pages of history, events over the past year have provided a sad corrective. Marches in Charlottesville, Virginia and other college towns have shown that the Klan is not only still active but appears to be thriving. In The City I and The City II, Vincent Valdez gives us a subtle but powerful artistic representation of these troubling developments. Here, we see Klan members in an unmistakably modern setting. Checking their phones they strike poses we are familiar with, they wear class rings that perhaps adorn our own fingers, and they drive the same cars we see on the streets every day. Moreover, their meeting place is not some far-flung cornfield but rather the close outskirts of a major metropolis. One of Valdez’s accomplishments is, therefore, to humanize the Klan, not by making it appear more sympathetic, but rather by reminding us that white supremacists are in a sense unremarkably human. Have we met a participant in one of these gatherings, perhaps at a supermarket, a dog park, or dinner table? Valdez gently reminds us that we probably have.

Mónica A. JiménezAssistant Professor, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, The University of Texas at Austin 

Vincent Valdez’s The City forces us to stop, to bear witness, to consider, and finally to participate in the banality of American racism and the commonplace of our violence. It is at once beautiful in its mastery and arresting in its content, and therein lies its power—we cannot escape its demands, nor should we want to. Here, at once, is our history and our contemporary, rendered in an undeniably stunning light. The painting calls us to gaze into the faces of evil and in so doing to gaze at ourselves—our capacity for hate and for violence, our collective history, and our fraught contemporary. Here is our American sublime: beautiful and terrible. We want to frantically turn away, but we cannot.

Sarah Needham Johnson, M.Ed., Education Innovation Research Grant Coordinator, Office of Academics, Austin Independent School District

As a lifelong Austinite, mother, and career educator in Austin’s public schools, I’m heartened by the community leadership the Blanton Museum is demonstrating through their Doing Social Justice art program for students and educators. Art provides an excellent starting point for rich conversations and invites us to creatively think about the perspectives of others; this is an important skill for all of us to cultivate as members of the global community. The education staff at the museum are skilled at facilitating conversations and inviting people to construct meaning together to deepen understanding of art, themselves, society, and the world. By displaying works that represent untold stories or reflect the difficult aspects of our culture or history, the Blanton invites us to bear witness and engage in conversations that matter.

Jessica Jolliffe, Administrative Supervisor, Social Studies, Austin Independent School District

Collaboration with the Blanton, the Anti-Defamation League, AISD staff, and the Austin Justice Coalition has produced a robust and thoughtful program on Vincent Valdez’s piece, The City. The integration of humanities education with Social and Emotional Learning opens a dialogue about challenging elements of American identity, history, and culture in an environment that values multiple perspectives. High school students have a unique opportunity to engage with this work in a variety of ways including dialogue with students from other AISD campuses, fiction, and non-fiction texts, and other works of art that compliment the message Valdez sends in The City. Exemplars of how to address difficult topics in a positive and productive way empower students to consider how they can be agents of change.

Jacqueline Jones,Professor and Chair of the History Department; Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women’s History and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History, The University of Texas at Austin

Vincent Valdez’s The City raises many questions about the role and meaning of hate groups in American society today. The sinister, mysterious figures (which include women and a child) are members of the Ku Klux Klan, an anti-black domestic terrorist group. The Klan, which emerged after the Civil War, has gone through several iterations since then. (In the 1920s the group targeted not only African Americans but also Jews, Catholics, and foreign immigrants.) The hooded figures dominate the painting, but the small details scattered throughout the immense canvas are equally fascinating, disturbing—and elusive. Rather than approach the painting as a lecture, through which the artist is trying to make a central point, viewers might want to see the picture as a forum for discussion, with the artist raising provocative, open-ended questions calling for speculation rather than specific answers.

Why might this group be gathering at night, with the city sprawled out below?

Can we tell whether the group as a whole presents a defiant, startled, or menacing front?

Are they reacting to a person who has joined them willingly, or intruded into their gathering in an unwelcome, threatening way?

Is the artist making statements about forces related to class and gender?

In what ways do the individual hooded figures distinguish themselves from each other?

This intricate painting challenges the viewer to contemplate the ongoing role of hate groups in a modern industrial society. How has the United States changed since the Civil War? How has it remained the same?

Renee Lafair, Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League

The Blanton Museum has invested heavily in educating the public on important issues around social justice through the medium of art.  In preparing for the brave and ambitious exhibition of The City, the Blanton reached out to the Anti-Defamation League because of our expertise on white supremacy and on anti-bias education.  The Blanton sought our input to help maximize the potential of this work of art to engender much-needed community dialogue, education, and reflection around issues of injustice and hate.

We were so inspired by the Blanton’s effort that we solicited the help of ADL’s national curriculum writer to develop a curriculum that would guide classroom conversations around this controversial and important piece far beyond Austin, Texas. We believe this piece has the power to inspire dialogue and much-needed conversations around equity, social justice, and the danger of hatred in our society.  Only then can we stop the hatred that The City depicts.

Nelson Linder, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Austin
[comments shared following attendance of the July 17 Perspectives program for the opening of The City] 

The Austin NAACP commends the entire staff at the Blanton Museum. We specifically want to cite the efforts of Simone Wicha.

The event not only exhibited the work of an incredible and engaging artist – Vincent Valdez, but attracted a diverse and inclusive group of community-based advocates and organizations. I left the exhibition feeling connected to the artist and many individuals whom I had never met.

You set an incredibly high standard for a city that is struggling to understand and embrace the fact that all of its people are equally important. I encourage you to continue moving forward and challenge all of us to find ways to help our entire city understand our past, present, and future.

Adele Nelson, Assistant Professor, Art History; Associate Director, Center for Latin American Visual Studies (CLAVIS), The University of Texas at Austin 

Vincent Valdez’s paintings The City I and The City II are anti-racist artworks that scrutinize racial violence in U.S. society. Nevertheless, the two paintings are full of ambiguities, mixing the ordinary with the abhorrent and inviting sustained, uneasy viewing. In The City I we see a group of adults and a baby donning KKK regalia—the individuals meet our gaze, whisper, and point while grasping folders, cell phones, and beer cans. This populated scene, made up of social and family units rendered in hyperrealist detail and flanked by illuminated technology (truck and cell tower), is juxtaposed with another large nocturnal scene, The City II. There we encounter a wasteland of ruined, discarded, and ablaze technological and consumer goods.  

Are these scenes analogous, with perpetrators of racial violence cast as garbage? Perhaps. Does the second work show the consequence of the activities of the first? Maybe. The artist fragments the narrative and denies the possibility of cohesion by dividing the work into two discrete paintings, by creating a scale and density of detail that invite viewers to zoom in and out as they take in the paintings, and by titling the works The City when the figures and objects instead occupy the dystopic margins with an urban panorama below. As viewers, we are left to grapple with a non-linear—simultaneously past, present, and potentially future—vision of societal corrosion.

Stephen Thomas Russell, Professor; Department Chair, Human Development & Family Sciences, The University of Texas at Austin 
I am immediately struck by the hands of the older woman in the far left panel: the plump fingers, hand, and wrist; soft skin; loose ring. They are so much like the hands of my grandmother. She was from Alabama; her closest sister and brother-in-law (my great-aunt and uncle) lived in Mississippi. I remember the time my great-uncle mentioned finding his junior Klan robe in the attic: my grandmother angrily shushed him, hoping I hadn’t heard. The City connects us with and challenges us to confront our own histories of racism: the ugliness, the shame, the silence.Faculty Headshots

Angela Ward, M. Ed., Austin ISD Cultural Proficiency & Inclusiveness, Race & Equity, UT Cultural Studies Doctoral Candidate

We partner with The Blanton in Doing Social Justice because we have found art to be an important, powerful medium to engage multiple perspectives. As an educator tasked with helping students, staff, families, and community engage in difficult dialogue about how we all experience the world in different ways, I value this partnership. Through this partnership we are able to give voice to narratives typically silenced in textbooks, delving into supportive, structured dialogue in the context of an artist’s interpretation of our world. I participated in one of a series of pre-showings of Valdez’ The City and lent my voice to the need for carefully structured dialogue and personal reflection around the work. I look forward to seeing AISD students and teachers, supported by the Blanton’s museum educators,  engaging with this important and relevant work of art.

Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, Director, Plan II Honors Program, Hayden W. Head Regents Chair, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, The University of Texas at Austin 

My first response to an invitation to participate in a Faculty Roundtable discussion of The City, Vincent Valdez’s painting of the Ku Klux Klan, was shock and even repulsion at the thought of spending time contemplating such an abhorrent subject. Moving past my gut reaction, however, I recognized the potential value in looking at the dark and often-buried underside of our history and collectively analyzing both the image and the feelings it arouses in us.  

Confronting the monumental canvas in a room with my colleagues, I experienced a sense of solidarity and emotional engagement as we each struggled to express our thoughts about this difficult, but ultimately powerful image. Unable to ignore these life-size representations of our fellow human beings—at once like us, clutching their cell phones, notepads, and children, and yet so deeply Other—we were forced to articulate the fear, anger, puzzlement, and alienation that we felt for them, ironically mirroring the Klansmen and -women’s feelings toward the immigrants and people of color they implicitly and explicitly threaten. Facing this specter of prejudice and violence that continues to haunt society was deeply uncomfortable and painful, but at the same time, I believe, there is something healthy, even therapeutic, in examining what troubles us most. Indeed, it is only by acknowledging the horrifying presence, and banality, of hatred in American society, that we can begin the path toward change.

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