On July 1, The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin opened the doors to a controversial exhibition, Vincent Valdez: The City. The show highlights an expansive and haunting oil painting, “The City I” (2015-16), which spans 30 feet across the wall of their contemporary and modern art gallery space. The massive panorama depicts a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan in modern times, with a Chevy truck, glowing smartphone, and surprisingly malicious-looking, hooded infant coddling a Pikachu plush, marking the scene as unmistakably current.
The Blanton sought after the painting in 2016 for its permanent collection. At the time, the museum was already hosting two of Valdez’s paintings in their collection, both from his series The Strangest Fruit. The almost eight-foot high depictions of modern-day Latino American men paint the subjects suspended in empty space, their body language implying that of lynching victims.
Valdez’s work often focuses on the history of Latino hate crimes in the United States, which he refers to as “almost entirely unknown, unheard of, and unspoken in the United States.” Records indicate that there were 547 reported lynchings of Mexican-Americans in Texas and California between 1848 and 1928.
These goals translate to his inspiration behind his City series, in which he tries to explore the connectivity between present racial politics and racial violence of the past — positing that the two eras are not nearly as different as often acknowledged.
Veronica Roberts, the curator of the exhibition and the Blanton’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, says the work was scheduled for exhibition immediately following its 2016 acquisition in their earliest available contemporary art opening during the summer of 2017. But these plans changed in the wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump and nationally publicized acts of racial terror, including “Unite the Right,” a white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Suddenly,” Roberts said, “we realized the world was a different place.”
The museum made the executive decision to postpone the show, fearing it would be misconstrued as a political action. After moving the opening to the summer of 2018, the Blanton extensively planned the painting’s inauguration for, what Roberts says, was about a year.
In preparation, the museum hosted roundtables in October 2017 with dozens of UT Austin faculty across departments — sociology, media, anthropology, Latino Studies, and economics experts were present. They met for three two-hour sessions, seated directly in front of the painting, an experience Roberts calls “intimate.” She says out of all of the faculty invited, none suggested the painting not be shown.
Over the course of these meetings, they developed strategies to display the subject matter delicately, choosing to build a façade to block the painting from immediate view outside the gallery and including a content warning on this wall to allow patrons to “choose” to enter the space, according to Roberts. They also wanted to optimize the public educational potential of the painting through the development of an artist talk and a day-long symposium, led by keynote speaker and renowned Black art historian Dr. Kellie Jones. Eleventh and 12th-grade students in the Austin Independent School District will be visiting the museum as a part of their class — part of a “Doing Social Justice” program organized with the Austin Anti-Defamation League. University of Austin professors Dr. Cherise Smith and Dr. Leonard Moore have definite plans to incorporate the exhibition into their course syllabi in the upcoming fall semester.
Following the opening, the museum hosted a talk between Maria Hinojosa, anchor and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA, and the artist Vincent Valdez. The auditorium where it was held allowed for 300 seats, which they easily filled, and they only regret having to turn away 40 additional patrons because of capacity regulations. Roberts explains that this is a first for the museum during her five years as a curator she’s seen such a large crowd for a museum talk, adding that during the Q&A, a number of audience members were moved to tears.
Valdez’s identity as a Latino-American has been controversial in his depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Valdez and his supporters cite the sometimes diminished history of the group’s animosity toward Latinos in addition to their widely known terrorization of Black Americans. In tackling such a weighty topic, the museum had conversations with local and national political organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, about sensitively approaching the topic of racial hatred. According to the New York Times’ reporting, the painting’s controversy was furthered by the museum failing to discuss the opening with the local NAACP.
The San Antonio-born and Houston-based artist focuses especially on the state of Mexican-American racial violence in Texas, the state sharing a border with present-day Mexico and being a hotbed for immigration politics and often hate crimes. The exhibition opening unintentionally aligned with what seems like a crescendo of xenophobia across the United States, in the wake of highly broadcasted immigrant family separation and child detainment, and increasingly contentious conversations about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to a report by the Department of Justice, hate crimes against Latinos have increased by 50% since 2016.
“Latino and Latinx artists have been extremely overlooked in the country and in conversations in the art world,” Roberts says. “I think of [“The City”] as one of the works I’m most proud to have championed.” Roberts considers the painting one of the Blanton’s most significant pieces in their permanent collection.
Vincent Valdez: The City will be on display through October 28 at the Blanton Museum of Art.
Visit their symposium, “Facing Racism: Art and Action” on Thursday, September 27, 2018 (all day). Keynote presentation at 6:30 pm by Dr. Kellie Jones, Associate Professor in Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, New York.
Gallery guides about the show, including an essay by Andrea Lepage, Associate Professor of Art History at Washington and Lee University, and a list of additional readings and resources discussing racial politics, are available in English and Spanish on their website.