The Schizo-Ethnic View : John Valadez paints as a child of ‘schizo-ethnicity'--growing up Mexican in an Anglo world and dealing with the rawness of the streets

<i> Max Benavidez is a writer and critic</i>

Successful artists have peculiar destinies. They work, sometimes for decades, refining their aesthetic vision, and then the times suddenly catch up with them. For painter and artist John Valadez, whose work often presents unsettling inner conflicts in grand metaphorical terms, the time seems to be right. The Nervous ‘90s are well-suited to a body of work that reflects on racial conflict, sexual ambiguity and existential uncertainty.

Beginning Saturday, Valadez’s work will be included in the Municipal Art Gallery’s contribution to the citywide “LAX Exhibition,” where three panels from his federally commissioned mural-in-progress will be on display. (The complete work will be placed at the Federal Building in El Paso.) He is also part of the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art’s traveling exhibition “The Bleeding Heart,” set to open Dec. 19 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. And Thursday, he will inaugurate this year’s series of “Artist Talks” at ART/LA92, the annual international art fair at the convention center.

For someone who has labored for many years in a murky nether world between the avant-garde underground and mainstream recognition, Valadez doesn’t seem particularly concerned about (or impressed by) his newfound popularity. He still aims to extend photorealism into the realm of surrealism. With paintings that depict the carnage of urban violence and the utter isolation of suburban entrapment, he continues to use intense realistic imagery “because I want to draw people in,” he says. And with a look of mock, fiendish glee, he adds: “Then, once they really see what they’re looking at, they’re repelled.”

“Bus Stop Stabbing” is a case in point. One day in the mid-'80s, some collectors were visiting Valadez at his fourth-floor downtown studio when they all heard a commotion below. Grabbing his camera, Valadez went out onto the fire escape. Lying on the grimy sidewalk was a man surrounded by a group of bystanders. He had been stabbed within an inch of his life. Valadez snapped a picture and used it as the basis for an eerie oil painting that will be shown in the Newport Harbor exhibition.


In ultra-vibrant, candy-colored oils, we see a man sprawled out, blood soaking his shirt. It is a gruesome scene of urban chaos at its most terrifying. But it is also a human spectacle, a kind of demented circus extravaganza, an unblinking rendition of the violence that happens around us every day, but that we manage to avoid by the security of geographic distance. Valadez captures the hysterical blur of an emergency through the use of quick brush strokes, almost as if to show the paramedics in fast-motion, trying to save the man’s life.

“For me,” Valadez says, “it was another sacrifice on the street. That’s what I go for as an artist: what I see on the street. In this painting, you’re seeing the scene as God would see it. It’s a heavenly perspective. I tried to make all the figures look like pieces of candy. There is a beauty to this tragedy because it’s so true, so human, that it transcends its own reality and becomes a metaphor for the quickness of existence itself.”

A third-generation Angeleno from East Los Angeles, the 41-year-old Valadez sees himself as a product of what he calls “schizo-ethnicity.” He says that growing up in the ‘50s he was force-fed mainstream values that corresponded to an ideal world--an uncomplicated, always neatly resolved reality that had virtually nothing to do with real life. From Valadez’s perspective, the shadowy side of life was ignored. As a Mexican growing up in an Anglo world, he learned to see everything from “two radically divergent points of view"--as if he were torn between two ways of being.

The deep contradictions between the two parts of himself, coupled with society’s denial of life’s inherent duality, eventually bred deep anger and rage. He recalls that by the mid-'70s his confusion had built to the point of implosion. As a survival mechanism he searched for some way to exorcise his demons. He found it in his own personal form of revisionist history. He took a copy of a 1956 Encyclopaedia Britannica and reconstructed it through the use of found images.

“I rechanneled the images of the dominant American culture by superimposing my own imagery onto the pages,” he says. “The book is about death, about my sexuality, my hostility and self-destructiveness. And it worked. It was a release, a cleansing.”

Critic Shifra Goldman, a longtime observer of Chicano art, recently noted that “The Britannica Book” is “a storehouse and dictionary of images which, in later transmutations from similar materials, Valadez employs in his drawings and paintings.”

Later, to confront racism directly and, through art, to mitigate its destructive impact, he turned to more socially motivated concerns. Specifically, he tried to construct a “Latino visual language.” He started painting and drawing from slides of dead animals found alongside L.A.'s freeways. Gradually, the focus shifted and he began a series of works depicting dead Mexicans. In the process, the young artist felt he was taking on the racist elements of society. “It was a way of giving them what they wanted--they wanted us dead--without giving them the satisfaction.”

By the early ‘80s, Valadez was moving toward more subliminal images. With his epic 80-foot-long 1981 wall work “The Broadway Mural” (inside the Victor Clothing store), he put behind him overt images of death and decay. This hyper-realistic mural, with its remarkable and intensely vivid imagery, is the simple but still subversive depiction of people walking down Broadway. By showing them for who they are and by, in a sense, glorifying the street’s cultural revitalization, Valadez was practicing what Umberto Eco has called “semiotic guerrilla warfare.” It was an authentic expression of the new ethnic reality in Los Angeles, and it said more through visual imagery than all the studies and statistics could ever reveal.


Some critics have suggested that Valadez reached his pinnacle with “The Broadway Mural.” He accomplished what many artists from subcultures only hope for: He had defined himself against the parent culture. In so doing, he had at last--on a personal level at least--left society’s demons behind. He was at liberty to concentrate on his own personal development and on the search for self through art. As an artist, he had helped expand the basis of L.A. aesthetic culture. From then on, Valadez’s subcultural expressions were but one aspect--a powerfully defining one, but nevertheless only one element--of his overall artistic repertoire.

In that vein, he began using his talents to explore the depths of inner sexual conflicts. He signed on with the Daniel Saxon Gallery, and with a market outlet for his work he presented, again and again, his view of the confusing permutations of the male-female dialogue.

“Sexual energy is very strong in America. It seems we’re always trying to repress it. It’s the Puritan thing,” Valadez says. “I guess what I’m after, even more than sexuality or eroticism, is sensuality--and in that way, somehow, I hope to get to beauty and idealism.”

The outcome has frequently been at odds with that stated goal. In the 1987 “Slumber Party,” for example, we see a group of nude and semi-nude people gathered around an unkempt bed. It’s a faintly pornographic look at the ritual of unromanticized sexuality. There is a vulgarity--often found in life--and an utter carnality to the work, but hardly a sense of beauty. And certainly no idealism.


In contrast, with “Drowning the Catch 2,” a 1990 work (also part of the Newport Harbor show), Valadez seems to have sloughed off the overtly sexual and gone straight to the eternal battle of the sexes. In this pastel on paper, we see only a woman’s legs and the bottom of her black bathing suit. She rides confident and fleshy atop a man’s chest while an ocean wave breaks around her. The man beneath seems almost lost in pain, drowning under her literal (and figurative) weight. “It was about being emotionally overwhelmed,” he says. If so, then we can only assume that it seems a torturous fantasy for Valadez--the artist and the man.

That may be the most compelling attraction in the artist’s work. With every drawing and painting, Valadez, whether he means to or not, discloses something intensely personal about himself. His sexual fixations, his ethnic rage, his social ostracism. They are all revealed with such honesty that we can respond only with embarrassed discomfort, as if caught in the act of watching a stranger undress.

Perhaps one of his most revealing works is a 1992 pastel titled “Immamou.” It is classic Valadez. A headless, naked torso with Kahloesque cuts, bruises and strange tattoos is submerged under a swirl of troubled water. The sunken torso sits waist-deep in the detritus of our modern disposable society. Like many of his pieces, this one offers multiple readings. This is the region of the unconscious, a place of desires unspoken, perhaps even unnamable. The word Immamou comes from an old Haitian earth religion and refers to the god of the sea.

“At first ‘Immamou’ scared me,” Valadez says. “There is a part of me that I’m afraid of because of what it reveals. But when I become afraid, I know that I’m on the right track. There are many frightful truths in the world that many of us don’t want to deal with. I want to bring these things out into the open and show them to people.


“The markings on the figure are actual ritualistic symbols from the religion,” he continues. “You don’t need the face. All you need to know about this person is known from the marks on the body and the tattoos. The signs stand for the spirit, and every spirit in this particular religion has rituals that call forth that spirit. I put in the cuts and wounds because it shows the reality of life. We all have marks--physical and otherwise. It’s about being wounded, and in ‘Immamou’ I’m trying to show that we can transcend the hurt, the trash.”

Sitting for an interview in his studio, pinata parts strewn on the cement floor (elements in new work) and old bullfight posters and soft porn Mexican calendars hanging on the walls, Valadez seems engaged in a process of transcending his own particular debris.

“I think it’s important to challenge Western narrative,” he says. “It’s ripe for challenge. It’s set in stone. Some of us choose to play with it. I’m going for the image that speaks to us without giving all the facts, without being clear. I don’t think everything has to be so damn clear.”