The Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin will present Vincent Valdez: The City in its Contemporary Project gallery, opening on July 17. Acquired by the Blanton, The City paintings are comprised of two works: The City I, a large, four-part canvas portraying a group of men, women, and a toddler in Ku Klux Klan regalia on a bluff above a glowing metropolis; and The City II, a single canvas depicting a pile of mattresses amongst other discarded trash.
“Expanding knowledge and human understanding is among the university’s core values and central to the Blanton’s mission,” said Blanton Director Simone Wicha. “The university serves as a platform for complex inquiries into societies past and present, and at the Blanton we cultivate these conversations around great works of art. A leading Texas-based artist, Vincent Valdez is committed to exploring some of the most persistent and challenging social issues of the day. His works from an earlier series, The Strangest Fruit, are among our most-utilized teaching resources at the Blanton. I’m confident that the presentation of Valdez’s powerful paintings, The City I and The City II, will also engage important and timely dialogues.”
The Blanton has developed programming around The City that includes an opening day conversation between Vincent Valdez and Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s Latino USA. In September, the Blanton will welcome scholars, artists, students, and other members of the public to Facing Racism: Art and Action, a symposium that will feature keynote speaker Dr. Kellie Jones, Associate Professor in Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. Dr. Jones has curated exhibitions such as Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, which was on view at the Blanton in 2015 and included work that helped inspire Valdez to make The City. Twice-monthly, the museum will host more intimate conversations in the exhibition gallery that invite consideration and discussion of The City from diverse disciplinary and social perspectives. In addition, the Blanton will provide opportunities in the gallery and online for visitors to respond to and learn more about the exhibition.
“In advance of presenting Valdez’s work to the public,” added Blanton director Wicha, “the Blanton brought together over 100 leaders and thinkers from across campus and the greater Austin community who have helped us to enrich the dialogue around this work. In addition to these collaborators, we are also indebted to the generous funders who helped the Blanton acquire this work—UT alumnus Guillermo C. Nicolas and James C. Foster, UT alumni Jeanne and Michael Klein, and Ellen Susman who immediately understood the potential impact of having this powerful work on campus.”
Valdez’s The City confronts the ongoing ubiquity of racism in the United States. The 30-foot long City I painting uses a grisaille palette to evoke historical photographs of a past era. However, symbols from contemporary life including Nike shoes, a glowing iPhone, a Chevrolet truck, as well as a modern cityscape, mark the painting as firmly set in the present day. “These individuals could be any Americans,” said Vincent Valdez. “There is a false sense that these threats are contained at the edges of American society, in small town landscapes or in the American South.”
The urban setting of The City also suggests the physical components of structural racism. “The designs of many American cities today still reflect segregation,” explained Valdez. “The plotting and location of train tracks, city dumps, land claimed through eminent domain, junkyard locations, city jails and police stations, storage and industry sectors, underfunded schools and housing, even down to the placement of parks and trees.”
The City was inspired by Gil Scott-Heron’s 1980 song, The Klan, and Philip Guston’s City Limits, a 1969 painting of cartoonish Klansmen that he saw in the Blanton’s presentation of Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties in 2015. “For centuries, artists, writers, and musicians have dealt with questions of identity, fear of the ‘other,’ and the threat of violence,” elaborated the exhibition curator, Veronica Roberts, Blanton curator of modern and contemporary art. “Although The City I offers a symbolic representation of American society, in many ways, I see it as a contemporary history painting, helping us to reflect on the ways the past continues to inform the present.”
The Blanton’s showing of The City follows its acquisition and exhibition of two paintings from Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit series, which refers to the overlooked history of the lynching of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the American Southwest during the 19th and 20th centuries. “Vincent Valdez is a virtuosic painter tackling some of the most challenging aspects of American identity and culture,” said Roberts. “The Blanton’s commitment to Valdez’s work reflects our larger mission to support significant Texas and Latino artists among the diversity of perspectives and histories we share in our modern and contemporary art galleries.”
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.