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June 19 - July 24, 2004, at Patricia Correia Gallery, Santa Monica

by Margarita Nieto / Bill Lasarow

I'm doing urban Mexican art In LA. It means don't blink underclass clean dishes cholo logic you’re ignored or a suspect playing it off killing your mirror image twenty dollars a day fear ignoring the chill
--John Valadez.
Los Angeles, California. November, 1994

John Valadez, "La Frontera - Panel I",
2004, pastel on paper, 44 x 50 1/2".

John Valadez, "Leeds Shoes 1983,"
2004, pastel on paper, 38 x 100".

John Valadez, "Mi Cin" (detail),
2004, pastel on paper, 39 x 100".

In the large pastel works on paper that comprise the current exhibition John Valadez exposes two sides of a whole, observed reality and the conditions that lie behind it. Exclusive of one another, he brackets and interrogates any unquestioned acceptance of the social environment. Valadez's territory is the world of representation and of signs in which we are immersed, and he is adept at opening both up to us, the viewers.

The works on view here cover more than two decades, and together they convey the basic tenet of his aesthetic vision. An early example that makes the point is 1956 Encyclopedia Britannica (1979-81?), which he "updated" by filling in and editing entries that serve as his response to this once sanctioned version of history. A challenge to the proscribed, to what the printed word has enshrined, is questioned and defied by both artist and reader through their own "reading" and interpretation.

That process has been central to Valadez' work ever since, as has been his favored primary tools: the camera and the pastel stick. That dichotomy between the instrument and the hand, between the brutal social realism of his photographic eye and the subtle lyrical quality of his pastel drawings, is reflected in the images and signs that he elicits, involving the viewer in a series of binary oppositions that cohabit a given image.

In his first group exhibition LA Parks & Wrecks back in 1979, Valadez began creating that dual vision through a series of larger-than-life portraits of homeboys and cholos. The implicit tension that has remained a consistent component in Valadez’s work since that time is the dissonance of beautiful form coexisting with abrasive content.

The shock of if lies in a viewer’s shifting from the initial charge of images that are full of a shimmering and dramatic presence that is larger than life, to recognizing these elevated portrayals are in fact genre paintings of a decidedly unheroic urban underclass. And, to be sure, this is not a latter day version of the American Scene painting of the 1930s that sought to mythologize the American experience.

Among the new works on view here, Leeds Shoes1983 is in a sense a traditional diptych by including contradictory images within the same narrative space. Arm in arm, a young couple enjoys the offerings of a shoe store display window, while scant feet away a homeless person and their bags of belongings make themselves at home at the store entrance, simultaneously blocking the doorway. The sparkling detail of the display window is all opulance and spectacle. Indeed, the effect spills over to the lavishly painted plastic bag bundles to the extreme left of the composition. But the story is of haves and have-nots, of indifference to need and of abject need. The subtext here is filled with sociopolitical and economic rhetoric.

The ultimate sign or image for this dichotomy in Valadez's work is La Frontera, in English The Border, stands as Valadez signifying image of this dichotomy between privilege and poverty. The geographical and political demarcation between two nations, in this case, Mexico and the United States. The term La Frontera itself--which Valadez has explored before in his 1991-1994 commissions at Isleta and El Paso, Texas--has a multi-faceted, and deeply emotive, signification in his work. It divides the immigrant from the citizen, the hunter from the hunted, the persecuted from the free, the accepted from the shunned, the laborer and the undocumented from ordinary citizens, and most chillingly, the living from the condemned.

These themes are central to both La Frontera I and La Frontera III, landscapes which juxtapose visionary images. In La Frontera III a ghostly indigenous warrior on a white horse takes aim with bow and arrow at a couple, white and mestizo, dancing within a ring of fire, celebrating the union of the two races. The mountains and plains are smoldering reds, signifying the discomfort of an unresolved conquest. In La Frontera I a Mexican man about to cross la linea peers over the mountain peaks, the valley of the promised land below. Leading him on, an angel points to the next episode: the ghost of his death-to-be, his chalk-outlined body. A border patrol watchtower to the right reminds you that we, as well as he, are on the border. The border between caring and indifference? The border between life and death? The border between the intimacy of the individual human story and the generalized force of government policy?

What Valadez articulates in these works are, of course, matters that reach beyond geographical borders. They are the metaphorical borders we cross toward the "other," the space in which awareness and consciousness awaken, the borders we must choose to confront or ignore, las fronteras we carry within.