Tuesday, July 9, 2013

John Valadez at the National Museum of Mexican Art

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.

Dulces, 1999

 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.

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