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Collection Connection: Vincent Valdez
Kira Sandoval, Museum Educator
This painting is captivating for many reasons, particularly its deep connection to San Antonio and the south. The subject is rooted in Texas history, and the painting was created by a San Antonio artist, depicting figures from the San Antonio art community. Can you imagine the impact viewing this larger-than-life painting on the walls of the McNay would have on a young San Antonio student interested in art? That is the seed of a young artist’s dream.
Q: At first observation, do you think the figures are floating, ascending, or descending the negative space of the canvas? Why?
Vincent Valdez’ Strangest Fruit 9 is the final from a series of 9 paintings. Look closely and you will notice the figures are actually suspended by an invisible rope. Intense, no? Similar to some of his earliest work based on the Zoot Suit Riots, Valdez’ Strangest Fruit series was inspired by his experience encountering photos of a piece of history he did not learn about in school: the lynching of Mexican-Americans in Texas that occurred from the 1880s—1930s. The suspended figures in this painting hark back to a time when Latinos were lynched in Texas, but these two men are depicted contemporarily in their everyday 2014 apparel. They are suspended not by a physical rope, but by an invisible metaphorical rope that still strains minority populations today in our society—institutionalized racism.
Valdez’ art is often larger than life and socio-political in nature, with a haunting quality (Re: his exhibition at the Blanton). He often weaves forgotten Latino and Chicano histories into a contemporary setting, acknowledging visually that we have yet to escape the atrocities of our past.
Q: How would you identify these individuals? What can you observe about them? How do their clothing and accessories reveal who they might be?
On tours, visiting students often first remark about the presence of red in the painting and all of the metaphorical possibilities of the color: police lights, fire, blood. A recent conversation with our Lead Preparator & Exhibitions Designer at the McNay who happens to be the figure in the background, Ruben Luna, revealed that Vincent simply found a red bulb in his studio for his clamplight and decided to use it on a whim. On Ruben’s brother, Rigoberto Luna, co-owner of Presa House Gallery, a small black and white button decorates the pocket of his denim jacket as a hidden homage. Students often notice and ask about this accessory and what it depicts—it is a button bearing an image of Manny Castillo, who had passed a few years prior to the painting. The button memorializes this shared acquaintance from the art community that once connected Vincent, Ruben, and Rigoberto early in their careers.
This painting is currently on view at the McNay, marking the first acquisition made by current McNay Director and CEO, Rich Aste—also the first Hispanic director in the Museum’s history. It is a staff favorite and a stunning testament to San Antonio-cultivated artistry as well as Texas art history.
Explore more here:
McNay Art Minute with Vincent Valdez and Ruben Luna
Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit
More on Without Sanctuary, photos that inspired the artist’s exploration of the series Strangest Fruit
NYT article about Latino lynchings and violence in the U.S.
Online Full Catalogue of the Strangest Fruit Series
Image: Vincent Valdez, The Strangest Fruit, 2013. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase with the Helen and Everett H. Jones Purchase Fund. Collection of the McNay Art Museum.