John Valadez, through August 11, National Museum of Mexican Art
The figurative paintings of John Valadez are overwhelming. The people feel too close, the colors too intense, the energy too exhausting, crackling with the inescapable reality of a newspaper’s front page or a busy corner outside a convenience store. It’s what you might call popular art, with more of a journalistic than a theoretical agenda for depicting community life on the streets and nearby beaches of his Hispanic neighborhood. In that way it fits the title given to this exhibition, “Santa Ana Condition”, a mostly Hispanic city near Los Angeles, where, in 1998, Valadez painted the walls of the Federal Courthouse with a cycle of murals depicting summer festivals. The drama on his streets is strictly personal. If there’s a fight, he reports on the emotional aftermath. Mostly he shows the inner struggle of people with their own desires as stimulated by the modern, urban world around them.
Sometimes, especially at the beach, turbulent appetites may come alive as fantastic sea monsters or whales, in response, perhaps to the voluptuous curves of a woman’s body or an automobile’s fender. This is the American dream of Surfer music from the 1960’s: buxom girls and classic cars, especially convertibles, on the warm, sunlit sand.
With work spanning four decades, the exhibit reveals the incremental development of the artist’s vision. In the 1970’s he was assembling collages of newspaper clippings at the same time he was making black and white photographs of Mexican Americans posing for him on the street Then he switched to color film - and then he made large, sometimes life size, drawings from the photographs. By the mid 80’s he was painting complex narratives that feel like photographic records of things both real and fantastic. The highlight of this period is a monumental pastel entitled “Pool Party” (1986), depicting two young Latin women behind the house grooming the family dog and hosing down the edge of the pool, apparently unconcerned with the nearby hills that are ferociously burning behind them. Hey girls! Wake up and smell the smoke! There’s that gentle sense of humor in the later narrative work as well, some of it more fantastic, others less so.
He depicts a world that’s awkward, funny, and brimming with hope and excitement, but not especially elegant or profound. And unlike the leading American figure painters of that period, like Eric Fischl, the characters in his paintings feel as innocent as the noble peasants depicted by an earlier generation of Mexican artists.