When I saw Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, I was reminded that our best filmmakers are now nearly sole proprietors of the visionary mood. Scott’s movie, with its spectral holographic conjurings of mythic ancestors spiraling through a dark, granular, mineralized cosmos, leads us through DNA dreamworks and crude materiality and the transformational states in between. The visionary mood was for a very long time the property of painters and sculptors. All those old master pictures we still look at in museums that depict deities and mortals, ancestors and us, the other and the actual — they were doing the work of consciousness that movies, in however pedestrian or trashy a way, have taken over. The last century did produce artists like Odilon Redon, who created hybrid states of the hallucinated and the truly seen, and the surrealists, who interleaved dream and wakefulness. But, for the most part, modern painting had other missions to pursue.
The Southern California painter John Valadez has cultivated his own visionary mood. Consider Beto’s Vacation (Water, Land, Fire), a three-panel painting included in the retrospective Santa Ana Condition, currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. In one panel, a young man and woman bend toward low surf they’re wading in but which is also somehow breaking over their heads and shoulders. In another, draped above mysterious sea creatures that hover near a green boat and blue-black sea is one of those garish blankets peddled by roadside vendors. In the third panel, the same couple joins another figure in the same green boat; they’re tangled in fishnets that are spawning fishnet-fashioned fishes, while from beneath the boat’s prow black smoke rises from invisible fires whose light speckles the smoke. Each episode evokes half-worlds portentously folding into each other. Taken together, they enchant and disturb, and the enchantment, like dangerous magic, is the disturbance.
But Valadez has brought to his art more than a visionary cast of mind. He was born in East Los Angeles, and into his purview of half-worlds he pulls the daily realities of barrio culture. In the 1970s, after his art-school training, he became one of many L.A. street muralists who covered walls with scenes of Zoot Suit gangs of the 1940s, César Chávez and migrant farm workers, pre-Columbian imagery, and other politically charged material. He was also taking black-and-white photographs that he used as an image hoard for material he would then bring over into his paintings. Though they seem casual and on-the-fly, the photographs are formally rigorous and thrum with visual information — street folk, shop windows, messy signage, and all the rest of a working-class neighborhood’s visual noise.
By the late 1970s, Valadez was photographing in color, and the images shed their documentarian character. The subjects in these studio-quality portraits pose with sharp, camera-ready self-awareness. They aren’t defined by the cultural information around them; they wear it. A handsome, wiry teen named Clavo sports high-waisted pants, military belt, tank-top, and hairnet, but he looks diffident and wary, not hostile or cool. The wardrobe coding recalls a legendary episode in Chicano history: the Zoot Suit riots of 1943, when servicemen stationed in L.A. randomly attacked Hispanics. The Zoot Suit look is as much a statement of ethni-identity as the low-rider, cholo look.
The faces and physiognomies in one of Valadez’s most dramatic paintings, Getting Them Out of the Car, derive from his color photographs. Valadez loads a local event, a gang-fight and its aftermath, onto a classical armature. Against a black background, a low-rider spilling over with wounded young men is decked with a blanket to look like an altar — one figure falls from an open door like a dying martyr in some Baroque painting. Beneath the car, an anachronistic, mosaic-tiled floor extends into the second panel, where the ceremonial black background mutates into sunny beach and sky, where more bodies lie, including bloody fish carcasses. Valadez conflates the real with the remembered, the actual with the imagined, and the entire dreadful scene mourns the powerful, irrational feelings that drive violence of all kinds.
The exhibition is named after one of Valadez’s big pastel paintings. (He uses pastels, traditionally exploited for their discrete, soft effects, to create unnervingly opaque situations.) Santa Ana Condition phases from flinty light to graphite dark. Six figures fill the foreground: a cheery middle-aged Asian male and sensuous 40-something Chicana against a white backdrop; three young males and females getting into love trouble against a blackness; and a threshold figure, a teen girl whose body rides the divide — on the dark side her skin is a scorched red, on the bright side it’s flesh-toned. When the Santa Anas are blowing, Raymond Chandler wrote, “every booze party ends in a fight [and] meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” Valadez’s picture is about that Santa Ana state of being — clarifying but portentous, sexually menacing and alluring, sullen yet inflammatory.
All these pictures date to the 1980s, when Valadez was also basing pictures on the lurid, satyr-ish iconography of telenovelas and blending icons of his own culture with grand precedents of European painting. In Serape and Strings, sketchy lovers out of Fragonard float above an Indian chieftain and a Rubens-esque nude, all constellated around a very contemporary couple: she’s a blonded-out Hispanic girl (in the scantiest string swim suit I’ve ever seen) arm in arm with a (much shorter) guy bundled in a serape. It’s a mildly comic, but stately and serious, declension of sacred and profane love, and how those very categories are mediated by cultural types and assumptions.
Since 2001, Valadez has made some of his most fearless pictures. His Car Show series features scenes from low-rider gatherings, imagery that pops with all sorts of desire — the gaudy ostentatiousness of the cars, male self-display, and the rough-edged coquettishness of girls in hot pants and bikini tops. And he keeps returning to the mysteries of the deep, to the otherworldy dimensions of sea and tide and foam and spindrift. I don’t know any contemporary artist who so persuasively reanimates the ancient sense of the sea as a beautiful but terrifying power. In his 2007 picture Sea Monsters and Freight, a rust-red oil tanker floats on a horizon line that draws our eye down to the tide line where a toothy, tentacled monster, colored an identical red, tumbles in the surf, chased by a Neanderthal type I think of as Caliban, Prospero’s feral slave in The Tempest. The picture offers three orders of monstrousness: one industrial, another of the natural order, and the third existential. Rip Tide (2004) works a variation on the sea-voracity theme. A glamorous, voluptuous redhead at tide’s edge is being pulled away by heavy-muscled waves. It’s a picture about being overcome and rendered helpless by oceanic passion of any kind. As in so much of Valadez’s work, the threshold passage is worked out in painterly terms: the woman’s dress, which the sea is already stripping from her, is a cerulean blue that folds the foam’s soft white into the water’s hard indigo.
I haven’t said much about Valadez as an identity-politics artist. He does use incendiary La Raza imagery but doesn’t bloat or shellac it with issues. We’re aware of his Latino sources and models, but there’s no tendentiousness. He’s mostly obsessed with how the present is saturated with individual and racial memory. The bold, flat, confrontational spread of his pictures owes something to the New York artist Leon Golub, who died in 2004 and was best known for raw, agonized paintings of mercenaries, interrogators, and torturers. But Valadez’s imagery possesses more moral curiosity than moral rage, and his style has a visceral, romantic, pumped, and flung energy. His art essays extreme conditions, sexual and emotional inundation, the helpless self overcome by greater, unspeakable powers. ■
Santa Ana Condition: John Valadez is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego until September 2. 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla. 858-454-3541; mcasd.org.