DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION
VINCENT VALDEZ thought it should be simple enough. The job: Retelling the nasty land-grab saga of Chavez Ravine, with all its vivid twists and turns, in all of its lurid hues. The story was shot through with themes that the young artist often revisited in his work: class and race, haves and have-nots, history and hearsay. The only significant twist in this project was that instead of a using a standard canvas, he’d be layering the narrative onto a truck.
To be precise, it wasn’t just any truck but a custom-built, lowrider ice cream truck -- a commission from Ry Cooder intended to help promote Cooder’s 2005 album, “Chavez Ravine.” It was to be, literally, a vehicle for keeping the story alive and vivid. A way not to forget.
Valdez has seen how easily the forgetting happens; how in the absence of hard facts there’s an impulse to invent or embellish -- to fill in the gaps. Holes open up in the timeline and new stories rush in, overtaking the truth. For him, art’s always been a way of guarding against erasure, setting the record straight.
Until the truck, he thought of the cycle -- erase/revise/restore -- as something removed from him. But recently he’s had a close-up view of just how, and how quickly, history can rewrite itself.
His trajectory was white-hot when Cooder called. Valdez had made his first big splash in 2001 with a piece called “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!,” a visually raucous painting reimagining the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. The work became one of more talked about centerpieces of a touring exhibition called “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge,” and Valdez, then 22, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, followed up with a solo exhibition at the McNay Museum in his home town of San Antonio. “Stations,” a series of large-scale, epic charcoal drawings that cast Christ as a boxer and the crucifixion as a boxing match, has been touring since its debut in 2004.
As for Valdez himself, well, he fell off the map. Conjecture abounded, he says, reeling off the reports: “The local newspapers wrote, ‘The pressure was too much,’ that I ‘fled town.’ People were saying I had a breakdown. . . . Others said I had so much success that I was ready for the big time and I went to Los Angeles.”
That was the only shred of truth -- the L.A. part. As for the rest, “They turned into all these little urban myths,” he says on a recent August afternoon, standing in the very spot where he has spent much of the last 18 months. Not club crawling, lunching or networking but in a bare-bones 1,700-square-foot live/work studio in Boyle Heights not more than 5 feet away from the very thing that actually lured him to Los Angeles -- that truck, that all-consuming ice cream truck: El Chavez Ravine.
Veering off course
As Cooder envisioned it, the truck would chronicle the battle over Chavez Ravine, a hard-scrabble, mostly Mexican American, working-class neighborhood that was plowed away to make room for the sleek, state-of-art stadium that the Brooklyn Dodgers would come to call home. The evolution of the neighborhood, from 1949 to present day, would unspool along the panels of the truck. It seemed straightforward enough, Valdez says. “I told Ry six, eight months tops.”
Now, nearly two years later, the truck still sits. Lurks really. And though Valdez says that he -- as of just a few weeks ago, “at 12:57 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 5th” to be exact -- is finally finished, the truck sits in his studio’s center space; his few personal belongings remain pushed to the margins where he lives: a crate of LPs, a turntable, a laptop, a trumpet case and a few scattered books -- mostly photography and history.
Valdez would be the first to admit that he might have taken a wrong turn and disappeared into his creation. “I had no idea what I was in for,” he says, arms folded, eyeing the crouching machine. Traced along its sloping doors, its curved fenders, is a winding, deeply rutted dirt road, a few wooden houses rising from it. There’s a view of a 1940s downtown, then a sleepy neighborhood waking up, and later, faces familiar from the Chavez Ravine battle -- then-Dodgers President Walter O'Malley, former LAPD Chief William H. Parker. This day in the life of a neighborhood, a time-tripping panorama spanning 1949 to 1959, looks almost like an intricate tattoo, but in the glowing, concentrated hues of a Los Angeles sky in summer -- blood orange, violets, lipstick reds -- all of it done in oil paints on metal applied meticulously by brush, painted and repainted, layer upon layer.
Valdez points out tire tracks here, a disrupted house plant there, “all my little obsessions,” which he knows, over time, became bigger and bigger. But each stroke, each erasure, each layer turned folly into actuality. He’s still haunted by it, having dreams.
“Some mornings, I would walk down these stairs and I couldn’t look at the thing. You know those stereotypical stories of the crazed, dramatic artists who are just a little bit nutty? Well, some of those are true,” he says. “I was locked up here for hours. . . always just me in here with the truck. And I would find myself talking to this thing. I’d come down the stairs and I’d grunt at it. I would literally say, ‘I just don’t want to see you right now.’
“I’d turn my back to it. It was like a partner. It was really wacky when you step outside and realize, ‘Am I talking to this thing?’ But worse, he admits, would be the imagined answer, “when even the grill opens up and says, ‘Finish me. Finish me.’ ”
Most days and most nights, Valdez could be found crouched on the concrete floor, a wooden cart pulled close, cluttered with tubes of oil paint, brushes and rags that also now look like a Los Angeles sunrise. He could spend half a day staring at a wheel well or a front fender, making corrections or additions. Or painting out another panel until it was once again a gray patch that resembled the primer. “I didn’t want it just to be a timeline. I didn’t want it to look hokey.” About six months ago, the truck still felt too vague, not balanced. It was a patchwork of intricate details, but some areas still felt empty or not sharply enough expressed, as if he had begun to lose steam on the other side. Cooder tried a gentle prod: “I’m not getting any younger Vincent. . . . “ To which Valdez responded, “And Ry, I’m getting older, man. This thing is making me old.”
Cooder admits, “Well, I started to think we almost lost Vincent there.”
For all this time, the truck has been the first thing Valdez glimpses in the morning, the last thing he takes in at night. “I wish I had logged the exact hours,” he says, as if that might clarify the journey.
Cooder well knows there is a fine line between perfection and obsession. It took him three years and many wandering miles down creative side roads to finish telling Chavez Ravine’s story. And really -- has he? He was more than halfway through the album when he started to imagine something starkly different from the standard-issue promotional music video, something that was unusual but, most important, lasting. “I knew people wouldn’t want to go back and read history,” he says. He needed a format that would convey the sweep of the story -- something in the tradition of Mexican murals, but mobile. “Problem with a wall is you can’t own it, buildings get torn down.” But finally, he says, “I began to see it.”
The task was to get others to see it too. First, he contacted the Ruelas brothers -- Julio, Fernando and Ernie -- master car builders out of South Los Angeles and founders of the venerable Dukes Car Club, to ask if they knew how to go about finding an old Good Humor truck, something familiar to a neighborhood. But there were none stashed away, so the Ruelases began piecing one together using a 1953 Chevrolet five-window, half-ton truck as the foundation. Next, Cooder set about finding an artist who could render what he was after. “Not what you usually see with car painting. None of these cartoons, silly drawings,” says Cooder. “A highly narrative oil painting -- but on metal.”
Another artist, Ruben Ortiz Torres, pointed Cooder to Valdez, who, in spring 2005, was finishing the pieces for “Stations” and took three months to return the call. He knew nothing of the Chavez Ravine incident and couldn’t fathom what an ice cream truck had to do with it, but he was intrigued: “I really couldn’t visualize it at first,” Valdez says. “But he hooked me with the story and his ideas.”
As he approached the Chavez Ravine project, there was the pressure to “get it right,” particularly because he was an outsider. For three months, he disappeared into research -- watched documentaries, read documents Cooder had sent him, listened to music of that era. He bought a ticket for a Dodgers game and sat in the “cholo seats,” to soak up stories. He attended Chavez Ravine family reunions, talked to families. He wandered the patches of what was left of the old neighborhood. He let Los Angeles -- its culture and its stories, past and present -- seep in, little by little.
There were no specific models for the project in terms of scope or medium, but there were precedents. This notion of a lowrider conveying a story is not as way out as it seems. “Lowriders have long been used, in a way, as a canvas to tell the stories of the barrio,” says Denise Sandoval, professor of Chicana/o Studies at Cal State Northridge, curator of the upcoming show, “La Vida Lowrider: Cruising the City of Angels,” which opens at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Oct. 27 and will feature Valdez’s truck.
“Lowriding, in essence, is performative. Cruising allows people to not only express themselves but transcend the limits of the barrio culture in Los Angeles.” It also ties into a tradition of street aesthetics in Los Angeles that blend tattoos, car painting and wall murals to pass on ancient myth, history or neighborhood legend, sometimes all at the same time. But, says Ortiz, “Vincent, he’s a different story. He comes from a different place. He understands narrative painting from the ‘30s. I can see a lot of American art in his work and to a certain degree Mexican muralism and illustration. But what he’s doing is a fresco -- working on the contours of a car -- in oil. This was big. Ambitious.”
Down the rabbit hole
When the Ruelas brothers wheeled the truck, a primed and ready canvas, into Valdez’s studio, reality set in: “I literally just sat in front of it for about a solid month and a half,” the painter says. “Two months. Then, I would just very timidly apply color.” Just settling on the paint itself was more problematic than he had imagined. “I asked a lot of car guys in San Antonio and here. I talked to the Dukes. To other artists who have done custom work on cars -- Magu and other people who knew how [artist] Mister Cartoon had done his vehicles.” Mister Cartoon, the graffiti artist turned street-art impresario, had even done an ice cream truck, though one of a considerably different flavor.
Most everyone recommended airbrush, “but that’s not my work.” Neither was acrylic. He considered car paint, but it dries instantly and he couldn’t blend. “I sat here and thought: ‘Can I do this? Really?’ ”
That was a more open-ended question than even Valdez realized. He went down the rabbit hole. The release of the album came and went. The anniversary of the album did too. And Valdez kept working, adding details -- painting fonts to match old documents, even precisely mimicking their hue. “It had to feel like the colors of the album. It had to feel like a Dukes car, and it had to be my work. And I was at such a crossroads with my work.” In retrospect, Valdez says, it wasn’t any one thing that tripped him up, or some spell the truck was working on him. It was something much more prosaic but necessary: his own evolution. “I’ve always had this tug of war with my work. Not just the subject, but the process. You see the fight in it.”
If anything was working its spell on him it was the story that he was retelling about the city, the persistence of an embattled community. “It’s been a complete awakening as far as my work ethic goes,” says Valdez, who has now decided to make a go of it in L.A. “Everybody learns to hustle here. And I don’t mean a street-hustle mentality. I mean like people working to make it,” he says.
It wasn’t simply the city’s burgeoning art scene -- the proliferating galleries, new cutting-edge work, the artists’ migration. “There’s an energy to this city, both politically and socially. Everything seems magnified. It’s been a real awakening for me,” says Valdez. “Growing up, I’ve been in tune with my political views, but here I see them acted out -- the student walkouts, the protests over the South-Central farm. And that energy has made me see my work, and the purpose of it, in a whole new light. It’s sort of like a punch in the stomach.”
That’s been enough to make him throw himself into the ring, to make a life here. He’s found a place in Boyle Heights and a gallery in Culver City -- Western Project. His solo show, which just opened, is up through Oct. 27. He’s even playing trumpet in a band, Ollin.
But soon now, Valdez knows, he’ll wake up and this truck won’t be “the first thing that I see when I start my day and it won’t be the last thing I see when I end my day, and that’s going to be tough.” It will soon be moving to the Petersen for the October show, and Cooder hopes to find it a long-term museum home.
As we circle the finished truck, he points out the newest additions -- ghost figures, more tire tracks, graffiti here, all those obsessive details. “It’s an ongoing story. It happens to all of us, whatever you want to call it -- urban renewal, gentrification. It affects me, it affects all of us,” he says. “The piece, it’s political. Sure it’s cultural, if you want to label it specifically, but I think beyond that, it’s an American theme. That’s America regardless of era.” We make our way to the hood of the truck, the end of the story. The stadium glows in full color, hot-lighted, stands filled. And there Valdez has painted himself in next to Cooder. They sit side by side in the cholo seats, taking in a night game. He didn’t get lost -- his footprints are there, an indelible sign. His X marks the spot.