David Shelton Gallery
Vincent Valdez: Dream Baby Dream
September 7—November 10, 2018

Some works of art possess the uncanny ability to attract new layers of significance. Usually this happens over a long period of time, but on occasion, new meanings accrue quickly. Such is the case with the paintings Vincent Valdez has been making in recent years. In September 2016, the artist  unveiled a massive canvas titled “The City I” (2015-2016) that featured an ominous gathering of robed and hooded figures clearly meant to evoke the Ku Klux Klan. The painting predated Trump’s election and the demonstrations at Charlottesville which emboldened white supremacists across the country. Since then, “The City I” reads differently, as prophecy as well as protest.

Valdez’s newest paintings, a suite of 11 works collectively titled “Dream Baby Dream” (2018), also seem affected by events that hadn’t yet happened when they were painted. Each of these large, dark grisaille oil-on-paper compositions depicts eulogists at the June 2016 funeral of Muhammad Ali. (In this regard “Dream Baby Dream” stays close to actual events, in contrast to the invented, highly allegorical scene in “The City I.”)  We see the figures, usually singly, standing behind a podium, flanked by large flower arrangements and pointing microphones. Their expressions range from the solemn (Rev. Kevin Cosby) to the anguished (Natasha Mundkur). The only relief from the somber grayscale are tiny touches of red and pink around the figures’ eyes, lips and ears. The glossy surfaces reflect light so strongly that from certain angles, areas of painting vanish in the glare. Viewing the show the day of the Pittsburgh shootings, it was impossible not to imagine the victims’ eulogists at an altogether different funeral, one for the progressive, aspirational American society Ali embodied.



“Dream Baby Dream” is the title of a 1979 song by the proto-punk duo Suicide. (Valdez clearly has admirable musical taste: “The City I” took a cue from Gil Scott-Heron.) Like Bruce Springsteen, who has covered “Dream Baby Dream,” Valdez reads the song’s message as one of faith and hope, likely not how it was heard in late ’70s New York, where the “dreams” Alan Vega sang about were more likely to be induced by heroin or derelict romanticism than by visionary politics. But the meanings of songs change, as do the meanings of art works. What gives these paintings their considerable power is not only their visual restraint but also their refusal to preach. Valdez leaves it up to the viewer to determine what they are about, a rare thing in political art.

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