Remembering the Strangest Fruit
Growing up as a Latino in the US, Vincent Valdez 00 IL has always been acutely aware of the stereotypes about young men of color in American society. For more than a decade, he has been exploring this idea through paintings showing the tragic masculine figure, the fighter, the gangster, the martyr. In The Strangest Fruit, his first solo show on the East Coast and one that closes on December 8 at Brown University’s Bell Gallery, he presents a series of haunting depictions of male martyrs, referencing a little-known tragedy that befell Latinos in Texas.
“The only way out for men like these is death and redemption – salvation through suffering,” says Valdez, who grew up in San Antonio, TX and now lives there in a 1928 fire station he restored as live/work space. “When I was a kid, I was obsessed with a dark, violent painting of Christ’s crucifixion by my great-grandfather. The image has never left me.”
The Strangest Fruit focuses on the horrors inflicted on Mexican-American farmers by the Texas Rangers in the early 20th century. According to Valdez, some 10,000 Latinos were lynched as part of an agricultural land grab. His work attempts to draw attention to this “erased American history” and to tie it to the violence and oppression that still define contemporary Latino culture. “The noose in America is still as present as ever,” he says. “But now it’s repackaged, reshaped and resold to the public via for-profit prison systems, racial profiling, drug wars, military wars, poverty.”
The slightly larger than life-sized oil on canvas portraits presented in The Strangest Fruit depict men wearing contemporary clothing but physically ungrounded – their feet dangling in the air on a white background and their figures somehow strangely disembodied. No nooses are visible, no blood is apparent, no noticeable physical harm has been inflicted, yet it’s clear that something terrible has just happened to these men. “This is probably the most minimal work I’ve produced to date,” says Valdez. “I’ve swept away the background, the noose, the mob and attempted instead to provide hints about the context solely through the details – a dangling shoelace, a missing shoe.”
The exhibition also includes a powerful diptych entitled I’m Your Brutha from a Different Mutha. Two pastel portraits show soldiers dying on separate battlefields, calling out to one another through time. Based on the canteen that lays by his side, the first appears to be a Civil War-era soldier, while the second looks more like a soldier from World War II.
“I was trying to create a universal soldier,” says Valdez – someone “of any race, ethnicity or era. It’s the never-ending recycling of warfare through the generations. How many times are we going to see these images? I was researching Italian opera posters from the 1700s and 1800s and was influenced by the idea of two figures singing to each other with their last dying breath.”
When Valdez visited Providence this fall for the exhibition opening and a related symposium – and to speak at RISD –it was the first time he had returned to campus since graduating. He was especially pleased to reconnect with Illustration professors who helped shape his vision as a young artist, including Senior Critic Lenny Long and Professor Fritz Drury. “RISD has played such an important role in my life,” he says, noting that his education was made possible by full scholarship support. “It was the most amazing, rigorous and challenging experience.”
When asked whether he ever feels hemmed in as an artist by his heritage, Valdez simply says he’s doing what comes naturally. “I paint the faces of young brown men because these are the faces I’m familiar with – the faces I grew up with,” he says. “They’re an extension of me, in some ways self-portraits. There is a risk of being pigeonholed, but if I don’t paint these under-represented faces, who will?”
In a recent talk, visiting artist Vincent Valdez 00 IL illuminated the process behind his stark and unsettling images of American society.
As the first speaker in RISD’s Community Dialogues series, activist and author Jeff Chang urged students to make art that advocates for social justice.
Artist/activist Shepard Fairey 92 IL worked with The Amplifier Foundation to share a message of inclusivity at the 2017 US presidential inauguration.