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September 15 - October 27, 2007 at Western Project, Culver City

by Annie Buckley

"Winner,” 2006, oil
on canvas, 42 x 80”.

"Death of the Prize Fighter," 2006,
charcoal on paper, 32 x 84".

"Head,” 2006.

Any good Western capitalist will affirm that big success is a goal worth fighting for, yet those who ‘make it’ often acknowledge what cultures around the world--from Native American tribes to Tibetan Buddhists--have recognized for centuries, namely, that achievement is its own unique form of suffering. “Winner’s Circle,” a new exhibition by Vincent Valdez, takes the simultaneity of glory and loss as its primary subject. The exhibition consists of new paintings, the majority of which feature the larger than life visage of a singular young man who is ostensibly at the height of his success.

The sheer physicality of each subject’s fight for victory is made apparent in their faces, and while the boxing shorts and wrapped hands on the one full figure in the exhibition locate the subjects as boxers, both the identity of the subjects and the implication of struggle expands beyond the metaphor of the ring. These are fighters; that much is clear. But the free will each has exercised to arrive at this particular moment of glory is questioned by the vagaries of their environment and the surprisingly tentative and eerily incandescent look in their eyes.  They gaze into some imagined distance as if uncertain of exactly how they arrived at this particular star-struck fate.

In previous works, including colossal charcoal drawings narrating a boxing match (“Stations”, 2004) and a series of paintings about the infamous Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles, Valdez has addressed the paradox of masculinity in an increasingly complex global culture by positing it in relationship to historical narrative. But while Valdez’s previous portrayals of powerful if uncertain young men were hinged to narrative and history via cinematic structure, these new paintings are achingly devoid of context. The subjects are framed in a haze of darkness with little more than a half-hearted spray of light--fireworks, flashbulbs, stars--to mark the occasion of their success. But rather than limit the scope of these works, the absence of context serves to root them in the present, referencing themes of the victor as wide ranging as the American “war on terror,” contemporary spiritual quests, and gang initiation rituals. Thus Valdez’s subjects take on the shadowy aspect of warriors that is typically absent, or perhaps most often misrepresented in the popular media. Be they young soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, kids warring in the nation’s urban centers, or teens battling drugs, depression, and suicide, Valdez manages to portray resiliency and vulnerability.

Friends and band-mates of the artist serve as models, but rather than portraiture, Valdez’s subjects are stand-ins for a blossoming archetype. From prize fighters to soldiers, the image is of young men exuberantly pumped and efficiently primed for battle by a larger structure, then left behind at the end of the fight. The style of his paintings, by turns expressive and detailed, serves up adulation and exposure in equal measure. Details such as the magnification of downy hair on a fighter’s ear, or the red and yellow reflection of fireworks on another’s eyelashes elevate the subject to the status of icon. But Valdez’s masterful use of color and texture emphasizes not celebrity nor glory, but the very earth-bound and humane experience of emotion. Fear, shame, wonder, and joy emanate from faces as queasily beautifully as the deep shades of vibrant color, reminiscent of grapes and bruises, nightfall and overripe cherries, that shape them.

The resource for an earlier set of Valdez’s paintings, etiquette books from the fifties, offers a different perspective from which to view the works in “Winner’s Circle.” Even though rigid roles for girls have not exactly been negated, boys are still not really supposed to cry. Sure, there has been some shift from the fifties, but what “Winner’s Circle” seems to point to is that there is a wealth of emotions swirling around in these young men, and that encouraging or allowing their expression sooner could ease some of this struggle, both individually and globally. In speaking about “Winner’s Circle” Valdez references personal, political, and communal struggles. Positing the central question of the exhibition, he asks, “What does it take to win nowadays? And is it even worth the effort?” His subjects respond like some new brand of Everyman--no briefcase-toting Willy Lomans here. These are hardscrabble youths on the brink, and their dazed rapture in this moment of victory represents an acute awareness of the transitory nature of winning, indeed of life. It’s as if someone whispered into each oversized ear, ‘the applause won’t last for long.’