Troubled symbolism

Vincent Valdez's 'The Strangest Fruit' at Brown's Bell Gallery
By GREG COOK  |  November 13, 2013

ARCHETYPE "Any Day Now" from the 'Made Men' series.
A shrine — that’s how Vincent Valdez’s exhibit “The Strangest Fruit” is laid out at Brown University’s Bell Gallery (64 College St, Providence, through December 8).

Eight highly realistic paintings of men hang on tall white box columns running down the sides of the main gallery. They depict a guy dressed in a Houston Rockets jersey seemingly standing on the tiptoes of his Nike sneakers; a man with his wrists together behind his bare back which is tattooed with skulls and praying hands; a man in a T-shirt that says “Mexican” who seems to be suspended upside-down by his feet. The men glow red, as if illuminated by firelight. They echo Catholic imagery of martyrs.

Printed on the end wall are the lyrics of the song “Strange Fruit.” It’s like the version famously sung by Billie Holiday about lynchings of African-Americans, except for some changes — “Southern trees bear a strange fruit” becomes “Texas trees”; “black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze” becomes “brown bodies.”

All this points us toward a subject of racial violence. The San Antonio, Texas, painter intends these contemporary figures, each depicted against a bare white background, as a statement about the “lost history” of lynchings of Latinos in the US from the Civil War to the mid-20th century, as well as the racism that persists today. In conversation, he points to an article published by University of Alabama School of Law professor Richard Delgado in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in 2009 that charges that “the number of Mexicans murdered by members of [the Texas Rangers] may have run into the thousands.” But there’s nothing in the art itself that guides us to this specific information.

Which can leave a confused feeling. The paintings make clear that Valdez aims to address a big problem, but because this history has been suppressed, you might not be sure what the problem is and whether Valdez is speaking literally of specific crimes or metaphorically about racism in general.

The poses are based on historical photos of black lynchings reenacted by models in his studio. “We’d bind hands and feet,” he tells me, and his assistants would “lift up and dangle the guys for 10 to 15 seconds” while he photographed. Adding ambiguity, but also obscuring his subject, Valdez has erased the straps and purposely scrambled the sense of whether the men are dropping or floating. Their poses and their expressions feel like acting rather than trauma.

Valdez grew up in San Antonio and participated in mural projects there. The 36-year-old studied at RISD from 1999 to 2000, then spent 2004 to ’10 in Los Angeles before returning to San Antonio.

The lobby of the Bell Gallery samples his work from the past decade. Three pastels from his 2003 Made Men series depict three larger-than-life-sized heads — a brawny guy with one eye swollen shut; a man with a wide stare, a buzz cut, and dogtags around his neck; a third man with words tattooed across his neck. Valdez intends them as archetypical Latino male roles — boxer, soldier, “modern homeboy.”

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