In ’s The City I
(2015–16), evil is so banal that it uses a smartphone. The four panel, 30-foot-wide painting shows 14 hooded Ku Klux Klan members (including a baby wearing a Klan robe) gathered at nighttime, a glimmering city just beyond them. One holds a beer can and makes a “Heil Hitler” salute, while another wears a delicate bracelet. Beside them, we see a Chevy driving up the road with its lights on, illuminating a dog. Valdez rendered the scene in haunting black, white, and shades of gray, while the details suggest a distinctly 21st-century setting: This hate group might have assembled just last night.
“My intention was to shed light on an alarming topic that I felt I was witnessing outside my studio doors,” Texas-born and -based Valdez told Artsy. “Being Mexican-American in this country, it’s evident to me that there exists both overt and covert racism.” He believes that Americans haven’t yet reckoned with the depth of their prejudices and the country’s violent foundations.
The City I is the centerpiece of a solo exhibition of the artist’s paintings opening today at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. Valdez will also show The City II (2016), which depicts a heap of rubble—and, according to the artist, symbolizes the state of American cities—as well as examples from his “The Strangest Fruit” series. The name alludes to a Billie Holiday song in which she croons: “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”In Valdez’s painting, Latino men float across blank canvases, their bodies contorted as though they’ve just been hanged. (Valdez aimed to commemorate the lives of Mexican and Mexican-American men who were lynched throughout the country’s history.) But if the show offers portraits of both perpetrators and victims, it’s the former who get a lot more wall space.