East City Art Reviews—Julio Valdez Mapping the Layers

By Guest Author on July 11, 2022

By Marco Polo Juarez Cruz

According to Monica Ramirez [1], author of The Ocean as Landscape. Pageant of the Pacific: Mural Maps by Miguel Covarrubias, maps are images that represent territories, graphic languages that many times have preceded the appearance of written signs. Their creators use the visual cues on them as a method to give order to their surroundings and interpretate the world they inhabit. Cartography—the scientific practice of making maps—have systematized the representation of territories with the objective of presenting a universal understanding beyond individual experiences. Despite this cerebral approach, cartography is not that far from the artistic practice of landscape artists that—according to Ramirez and Svetlana Alpers [2], Professor Emerita at the History of Art Department in Berkeley, have attempted to capture on a canvas the visual knowledge and qualities of a place. The methodological and formal characteristics of creating maps show us the inquisitive aspect inherent in humankind, and the constant need to reflect upon our perspective of the world and its history of movement and contact.

Julio Valdez, Aquiles: The Heart Fell Into the Sea, Oil on Panel. Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery, New York.  Photo by Ezequiel Taveras.

As other artists, cartographers, and humans immersed in a world of change, Julio Valdez attempts to understand the positions that he occupies through his diverse roles and identities. Julio Valdez: Mapping the Layers is a mid-career exhibition organized by the Art Museum of the Americas from April 21 through July 12, 2022. Adjacent to the National Mall in Washington DC´s downtown, AMA preserves, studies, and exhibits the art collection of the Organization of American States that focuses on modern and contemporary art from the region. The show looks at Valdez´s approach to different media, themes, and interests through a career that started in the emblematic Altos de Chavón school in his native Dominican Republic.

The exhibition evidences the artistic exercises followed by the Dominican artist to reflect upon his place in the world, by following the cartographic example of representing the surroundings. Through an artisanal method of overlapping strata of color and distinct media, Valdez interprets creatively his observations of the places he has lived, learned, and experienced. As it is a constant in his personal history, Valdez’s artistic practice migrates between distinct techniques in order to find a conceptual and emotional balance for his curiosity and office as an artist. The handcrafted process of mixing media and scale provided him a space for reflection and a dynamic reinterpretation of his identity.

Julio Valdez, Las Terrenas Abstraction VIII, Oil on Linen. Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery, New York. Photo by Ezequiel Taveras

After moving to New York in 1993, Valdez received a fellowship to continue his education in the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop. Established in 1947 and transformed into a cooperative in 1956, the space has promoted artistic exploration and technical innovation by associating artists and scholars from diverse backgrounds. In the workshop, Valdez experienced not only the divergent nature of painting and printmaking but also the alternatives found in the size of an artwork. Printmaking—with its economy of forms and alchemic transformation of pictorial surfaces—allowed him to synthesize an idea and to methodologically overlap concepts, emotions, and experiences. Painting provided a method to manifest his creativity as an ability to observe and respond to experiences in visual terms, incorporating a new scale to observe the world. In Aquiles: El Corazón Cayó al Mar, the artist experiments with the distinct dialogues initiated by painting and printmaking. While looking at a passport photo of his deceased brother, Valdez found a strong resemblance with his own seventeen-years old son. After transforming the photograph into a print, he noticed that the scale of an oil on canvas would provoke a distinct response to the reflection of the passage of time, the carried inheritance, and memories. As Valdez continues migrating from distinct media, his artistic process integrates them in an artisanal manner, interlaying materials, techniques, and creative methods. These cartographic explorations invented a visual vocabulary of images integrated with sea waves, silhouettes, tiles, reflections, and other visual artifices.

Julio Valdez, Aquiles: Mar Rojo II, Oil on canvas on Panel. Courtesy of June Kelly Gallery, New York.  Photo by Ezequiel Taveras

The artworks presented in Julio Valdez: Mapping the Layers exemplify this repertoire, focusing on the artisanal relationship between representation and technique. Two galleries focus on painting as the prevalent media of action. A third gallery delves into the exercise of printmaking and the reflection of the contemporary events in the United States that have channeled discussions on race and oppression during the twenty-first century. Despite experimenting with canvases in various sizes, the paintings do not attempt to present to the audience a complete impression of what Valdez perceives through his senses. An all-over picture—defined by Clement Greenberg as a decentralized composition with no single focus of attention that broadened the definition of easel painting[3]— allows him to portray fragmentary representations of ideas and sensations that lure the spectator inside the scene. The polyptych Accursed Circumstance (acrylic and oil on wood) exemplifies a hypnotic sensation created by sea waves that surround the sole figure in the left canvas, transmitting this feeling to the observer. Painted in 2007, it echoes a phrase authored by the Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera on a circumstance shared by the Caribbean nations, the imminent presence of water that defines and delimits their insular condition.

The conspicuous presence of the sea in the paintings at the first gallery evidence an introspective exploration of Valdez´s position in the world, through a first-person perspective that serves as a metaphor of consciousness and identity. Las Terrenas Abstraction series—inspired in the touristic city in the Samaná peninsula—show a figure floating in the turquoise Caribbean waters, distorted presences that recognize the impossibility to encompass the vastness of the bodies of water. Valdez understand his paintings both as music and films. As a musician, he creates variations on the same idea, integrating distinct tonalites provided by media. A cinematographic approach invites the observer to follow his footsteps, tracing the presence of the dyed silk, the printed impressions in the canvas, and the superposition of veiled layers of paint that blend the landscape with the depicted figure.

View of the exhibition Julio Valdez: Mapping the Layers at the OAS Art Museum of the Americas. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

The second gallery of the exhibition looks back at paintings made during the 1990s. In the early years of his career, Valdez utilized silhouettes as a synthesis of the self-portrait as a personal reflection of his identity. A shadow projected on the canvas outlined a continuing search for his own definition, from his early training in the emblematic school in Altos de Chavón in Dominican Republic, to his contemporary projects in the US East Coast as a painter, printmaker, curator, master printer, and instructor. During this period, Valdez experimented with illustration, anatomical drawing—a heritage from his academic formation—and the assemblage of prints, newspaper clips, and other images that created a fragmented construction of history.

The third gallery moves from early exercises of printmaking—self-portraits, maps, and large-scale examples of silk aquatint—to the new media and themes developed by Valdez during the COVID19 pandemic. Beyond new models of self-portraits wearing a facemask, Valdez and the AMA curators were interested in showing a series of sketches and drawings that reflect upon the episodes of racial violence and social protests ignited by the assassination of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in summer 2020. The preparatory drawings were used for a series of aluminum panels installed at the Collyer Brothers Park in Harlem in July 2021.

The artistic process and personal experiences guide Valdez´s paintings, combining realistic self-portraits with impressionistic abstractions of landscapes and the sea. They create a personal cartography that allows him to understand his position in a world that is not monolithic, rather than mobile and syncretic. The distinct fragments that shaped a history of migration, mobility, and exchange in the Caribbean artist are overlapped through an artisanal and cartographic manner. Permeated by the experiences of a Dominican artist living in the United States, his paintings map a visual exercise of belonging, finding an origin, and rooting the emotions that connect the Americas in the vastness of the Caribbean Sea.

Julio Valdez Mapping the Layers was on view at Organization of American States Art Museum of the Americas from .  The OAS AMA is located at AMA | Art Museum of the Americas Organization of American States is located at 201 18th Street NW, Washington DC.  Contact the gallery at 202.370.0147 or artmus@oas.org for more information.  Visit the gallery’s website at http://museum.oas.org/

Marco Polo Juarez Cruz is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, focusing on twentieth-century Latin American art. He is primarily interested in the emergence of abstraction in the Americas and its relationship with local identities, cultural policies, artistic groups and institutions, and the Cold War. Marco Polo received his BA in Architecture from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in 2009 and earned his master’s degree in Art History from UNAM in 2018, with Mencion Honorifica.

[1] Monica Ramirez is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University. She is the author of The Ocean as Landscape. Pageant of the Pacific: Mural Maps by Miguel Covarrubias (UNAM, 2018 ).
[2] Svetlana Alpers is a Professor Emerita at the History of Art Department in Berkeley. She specializes in Northern Renaissance Art.
[3] Clement Greenberg, ‘‘The Crisis of the Easel Picture’’ (1948), in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston, 1961), 154.