Sep 27, 2018
A Review of Valdez's Stations by Garry Reece
In 2004, the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio exhibited paintings by Valdez related to prizefighting. The Houston writer Garry Reece published this review in Volume 44 of ArtLies, in which he traces the dubious history of professional fighting and compares Valdez’s suffering boxers to the pieta and other depictions of Christ from the early Renaissance.
Boxing, a popular gladiator sport, grew so violent and brutal that in 393 AD, Emperor Theodosius outlawed it. The sport lay dormant for 1,300 years till the soot and squalor of Industrial England proved fertile compost for its re-flowering...then off to America, where the gentleman pugilist became yet another American hybrid: the prizefighter. Fed on back stoops and under the eaves of corncribs, in slaughterhouse alleys and waterfront hiring halls, he grew brutish, crass and immoral—a pretty rotten fellow altogether.
Prizefighting is a metaphor for the philosophical and social condition of man in modern society. We are familiar with the mythos, have seen a few movies, photographs and aped gestures, all of which explore the wrong side of town—North Philly, East L.A., Hell's Kitchen. There, Joe Louis' six-inch punch, Carmen Basilio's nose, Sugar Ray Robinson's conk and "Homicide Hank" Armstrong's three simultaneous world championships melded with Bogart's epiphany in The Harder They Fall, Salvador Sanchez's heart, ADRIENNE, Rubin Carter's will, a Bob Dylan song, Butch's gold watch, Sonny Liston's heroin jones....
Is it any wonder boxing evolved into kitsch? Which explains, in part, why so many intellectuals are attracted to it. The intellectualization of kitsch is a growth industry. Yet the boxer symbolizes more than resentment and human struggle-as-kitsch: he symbolizes, in some respects, the individual in mass society—marginalized and consumed by the demands and acts of his own consumption.
Vincent Valdez stares unflinchingly into the jaundiced eye of kitsch and sentimentality, questioning our primordial need for violence as entertainment, rendering Christ as Everyman—a boxer in the fight of his life.
Again, we already know the story: the falsely accused (Valjean, Ivan Denisovich, Cassius Marcellus Clay—they are all interchangeable), condemnation and tragic, inevitable demise. Yet there is something different in Valdez' fete galante that distinguishes it from a normal reading of Via Dolorosa.
Much is made of people that inhabit these galantes—sometimes for good reason, others simply to spoon feed. So we are told that one of the princes of San Antonio, collector Joe Diaz, is cast in the role of cigar-smoking manager. More importantly for me, Diaz doubles as Nicodemus, the Sadducee that knew the truth surrounding Jesus of Nazareth but refused to get involved. This is substantiated in Station IV as the viewer finds Diaz peering between the referee's legs, realizing the tragedy unfolding before him and questioning the placement of his own apathetic resolve—a very nice call-out indeed.
In Station III, we find Valdez courting the edge of history and appropriation: the Clown Boxer of Evocation stands in for the Clown Prince of Melancholia. In this bout, our boy, our champion, is presented in all his vulnerability. A narcissistic, feigned hubris awkwardly seeps from his persona. Poised, focused, oblivious to the gibes of the crowd, this archetypal underdog is consigned to us at the very moment of reckoning, attempting to screw down his faith to Lady Macbeth's elusive sticking point. All this is presented within a narrowing of perspective and an increase of scale that speaks of things confronted in the small, tight places of fate.
Station VII is a quatro that presents physical demands—the real passion of the Christ. It's the most ambitious image of the lot for it implements the viewer on a number of levels, past and present. It questions differing versions of the story—what to leave in or edit out, and the all-important point of view. Do we get it first hand, up close or from a distance; from an eyewitness—or is this a cinematically induced reality of a pay-per-view rebroadcast we view? One can almost hear directional cues from the control booth.
This pieta is as moving as it is vulgar and cinematic. Allegorical in the use of perspective and depth, the canvas pulsates with the in and out of so many stories tied to this one act. Employing a ringside perspective allows Valdez to utilize the legs of varying principals as architectural stand-ins, breaking the pictorial plane into a series of vignettes. Mary's sexuality is undeniable; the sensuous contour of her flared bell-bottoms acts as a flying buttress of sorts, anchoring the pictorial plane and evoking maternal concern. It is a pithy, remarkable reminder that the price of love these days (and back in the day, too) is sometimes the price of a closed-casket funeral.
Yet after a beating of such magnitude, this manner of man is, of course, transformed. He is not Mantegna's Christ, but there is something here that speaks in different terms of the same cosmic tragedy: the twisted, elongated feet, much too big for such a small-framed man. These drawings are gritty and on cue, remarkable in scale and clarity and relentless in questioning our need to be entertained by the graphic and violent here and now—or, as Joyce Carol Oates preaches, "Boxing is the celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost."
ArtLies was a print arts quarterly published from 1994-2011. Founded in Texas, ArtLies offered a critical examination of artistic practice, theory, and discourse on and about the contemporary arts. For more information and the ArtLies archives, visit The Portal to Texas History by the UNT Libraries.