Some Closing Thoughts on Vincent Valdez: The Strangest Fruit at the Bell Gallery

Anya Ventura, Arts Writer at MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology 

The slender loop of the noose is gone. The trees are gone. The crowds are gone. In Vincent Valdez’s life-size paintings of lynched brown men, all that remains are bodies. These men are lit like angels: their Caravaggio-like flesh glowing with the kind of pink holy light found in Renaissance paintings to illuminate the bodily distress of religious suffering. As they hang in poses at once beatific and disquieting, there is something strangely buoyant about these floating figures; there is a lightness to them as if they were already called up to heaven, shook loose from their mortal coils and ascending to some brighter, golden place.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds Mexican-Americans were lynched in the American Southwest, victims of a ritualized brutality executed outside of but often in collusion with representatives of the law. Men were often yanked from jailhouses and courtrooms and carried off into the streets, where their bodies were hung in front of cheering, angry mobs who believed themselves to be enacting a form of vigilante justice. These were men whose violent fates have been largely forgotten by history, kept alive only through Spanish folk ballads and dailies – laments sung at parties and funerals – passed down through the generations. [1]

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Vincent Valdez, Untitled from The Strangest Fruit, 2013, oil on canvas, 55 x 92 in.

But these historical specificities are vacated in Valdez’s paintings. Instead, the men he paints with such painstaking realism are those from his own life in San Antonio, Texas. Each is rendered in tender exactitude, as if in documenting every mundane detail Valdez could pin these men to earth for a little bit longer. They wear rumpled blue jeans and cowboy hats, sports jerseys and Nike gym shorts, Hanes briefs and crew socks rolled up to mid-calf. One has an elaborate back tattoo of two hands clasped in prayer with the words “In Memory” etched below. A kind of historical transference takes place as the sins of the past are meted out in the present. The precise methods of racial violence may have changed, Valdez suggests, but the underlying prejudices are the same. Like Valdez’s other illustrations of soldiers, gangsters, and boxers, these works depict an embattled masculinity, the male body under assault. Valdez is most interested in men lost to war and violence, men whose survival is precarious at best, creating small memorials in paint as part of the process of bearing witness to loss.

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Vincent Valdez, Untitled from The Strangest Fruit, 2013, oil on canvas, 55 x 92 in.

The men float sceneless against a backdrop of white — the color of erased histories, of the dominant culture, and also of a certain spiritual transcendence. In leaving this negative space, Valdez does something more expansive than merely restage a lost scene for the history books: it is a meditation on suspension in all its forms. To be suspended, after all, is to hover in that fraught zone between the earth and the sky. To suspend is also to delay, to pause the steady flow of time. What forces — social, historical, bodily, spiritual — hold these men in such limbo? With their bound wrists and entangled feet, the men hang in that liminal space between the past and the present, between life and death, in a state of physical, historical, and metaphysical tension. In painting these men, Valdez attempts to speak across that short breach between the living and the just barely gone, to souls only recently departed from still warm bodies. In none of the works do the men look directly at us. Their faces are obscured, or else they stare glassily into the unknowable distance — seeing what we, the viewers, cannot.

[1] Carrigan, William D., and Clive Webb. “The Lynching Of Persons Of Mexican Origin Or Descent In The United States, 1848 To 1928.” Journal of Social History 37, no. 2 (2003): 411-438.

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