Vincent Valdez' 'Stations' lift the artist off the cross
When Johnny Cash died almost a year ago, few media outlets missed the chance to mourn the Man in Black. His gravelly voice was an acquired taste, and it's been generations since country music could be called the soundtrack of the nation. In the late 20th century, Cash's songs, of homesick prisoners, broken men seeking redemption and finding it in a good woman and the lord, were almost anachronistic, yet he remained somehow our national bard. Almost no one, though, ran the lyrics to the song that explained why he adopted his signature ebony garb: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town / I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, But is there because he's a victim of the times." Not exactly the theme song for the roaring '90s. Nonetheless, his popularity and iconic status persisted.
An exhibition of drawings by local artist Vincent Valdez at the McNay mines the same dark themes of manhood and spirituality. Valdez' richly detailed realism and his subjects announce that he does not hail from the world of postmodern pop anymore than Cash did. His world is one in which it is still possible to believe in absolutes and to mourn when they fail you. The show, titled Stations, consists of 10 large-scale drawings in which ciaro/oscuro is taken to its extreme.
In his opening remarks, McNay Curator of Prints and Drawings Lyle Williams ventured that Valdez' boxer becomes the everyman, our stand-in for the Christ figure, as he takes our beatings in the ring. It's a powerful idea, even if you've had Catholicism ad nauseam and prefer abstract and conceptual art at a 10-to-1 ratio. I think the boxer, modeled by Valdez' brother, is more likely a stand-in for the artist himself. In the first station, "Weigh In: Coming in at 140 lbs 8 oz," a flashily dressed promoter looks like an Italian version of Finesilver Gallery proprietor Chris Erck, who represents Valdez. Paparazzi and fans with a t-shirt emblazoned like the Shroud of Turin greet the boxer on his way to the ring in station "II"; it is not unlike the overwhelming enthusiasm and pressure that has greeted Valdez since his Made Men show at Finesilver in 2002 earned him the burden of expectation not only as a breathtakingly talented young artist, but as a breathtakingly talented Latino artist.
One of the most interesting drawings, "They Say Every Man Must Fall," references the double-edged nature of fame's pedestal, and demonstrates the influence of the graphic novel style on Valdez' work. While the common comparisons of Valdez' style to old masters certainly make sense, in this series the artist has emphasized some features at the expense of others in a way that is very of-the-moment. The use of extreme light and dark contrasts in station "I" and the exaggerated tragi-comic face of the referee in "Every Man" are good examples of this trend which has always been nascent in Valdez' drawing (and which makes sense for a 26-year-old).
Elsewhere, the monumental series shows small signs of being rushed in a few foreshortened limbs and torsos and unsubtle shading, but station "VII," which consists of four panels displaying the meat of the fight from cockeyed angles, is outstanding, conveying the confusion, brutality, and excitement of the match.
As an example of the expectations surrounding Valdez, I received more than one unsolicited recommendation about how to review this show. One collector insisted that Valdez shouldn't hear any discouraging words at this point in his career. Another thinks that Valdez needs to go to Europe for awhile and get away from the San Antonio and Los Angeles pressure to be first and foremost a Latino artist. But based on the moving act of transcendence Valdez accomplishes with Stations, I suspect that, for all his youth and gentle demeanor, he believes the phrase that appears in two of the stations: "The strongest man in the world is he who walks alone." •
By Elaine Wolff