Floor to ceiling canvases of distraught and somber faces fill the main space of David Shelton Gallery. Rendered in black and white, each figure stands at a podium, frozen in time. A hand gestures out in exaltation; another is placed softly over its owner’s mouth. One pair of eyes directly engages an imagined audience, while another is completely hidden beneath the shadow of a hat. These are the faces of Dream Baby Dream, the current exhibition by Vincent Valdez and Part II of his series The Beginning is Near. Valdez is a stunningly and technically gifted painter. His surfaces in Dream Baby Dream fluctuate between glossy realism and dreamy impressionism; yet, Valdez’s artistic expertise runs much deeper than an aptitude for physical likeness. The larger-than-life scale and enticing verisimilitude of his works draw you into an unveiled reality, one that focuses on mortality and the power struggles found within contemporary America.
Dream Baby Dream is a series of twelve paintings, ten of which depict imagined stills from the speeches and eulogies given during the funeral of champion boxer and activist Muhammad Ali (1942-2016). However, if you didn’t watch his three-hour, televised service in June 2016, the reference to Ali isn’t obvious. What is immediately readable is a sense of collective tragedy. Valdez’s velvety paintings take over the viewer’s range of vision. Appearing like compiled images from New York Times front pages or stacked televisions with breaking news, the canvases display multiplying anguish, expressed on the faces of Valdez’s subjects. The cast seem pointedly diverse—a man in an Islamic or middle eastern cap, a woman in a head scarf, a man in a Jewish prayer shawl, three men in Native American dress. The black and white palette also lends ethnic ambiguity to the group. From the given visual information, it is hard to tell if their tragedy is reality or metaphor, local or global. In the midst of these characters, the central, uppermost painting of the series depicts an empty podium. No speaker appears here. Only an ominous, black void remains to consume the space left behind the microphone. Without knowing the context, the abandoned podium becomes one of the most disturbing vignettes. The unoccupied pulpit brings to mind the post-WWII poem First they came…. Written by German pastor Martin Niemöller, it plays out the question—if I don’t defend others, who will stand up for me when everyone else is gone? The podium reads as the viewer’s invitation to speak up for what she believes in.
When the expanse of the series becomes overwhelming, its details offer a meditative respite. Valdez renders the people and objects in his paintings as textural landscapes, available for visual exploration. Almost impressionistic, the funeral speakers’ portraits are modeled and brushy. Valdez paints white light reflecting off of his subjects’ skin and clothes, allowing it to hover in places like an aura. The black pigment of his backgrounds is applied in consistent, fluid streaks—the glossy oil paint swirling like heat waves. Behind each speaker are arrangements of flowers. Lush and bursting, they expand like ceremonial fireworks in the background, their branches reaching out like leafy tentacles. Accurate to Ali’s service, the greenery is both a protective barrier around the speakers as well as a surreal, slightly suffocating force of nature within the scenes. Touches of pink are also included amidst the black and white of the artist’s flowers and faces—worked into the texture of a pedal, around the rims of teary eyes, on rubbed noses and knuckles, and into the stripes of an American flag. The red pigment is somewhat distracting when viewing the painting up close. However, it does insert an element of truthful vitality when viewing the paintings from a distance. It suggests blood, pain, and aliveness, and calls for the audience’s empathy. It attempts to bring the subject’s emotive story into the reality the viewer—bridging the separation we may routinely establish between ourselves and the difficult images we encounter on screens, in newspapers, and even in art.
Online, the full memorial service of Muhammad Ali is easily accessible. One can imagine Valdez spending minutes to hours studying the video in order to roughly construct or fine-tune his scenes. Yet, there is an aspect of the footage that is not expressed in the paintings. This is the greatness of the man Muhammad Ali. Yes, the viewer may feel it in the portrayed sense of loss, but the impassioned joy and pride occasionally exclaimed by the speakers—each of them inspired by the memory of Ali (his beauty, faith, struggle, and late-in-life generosity)—is missing. Ali was a man who used his platform as an internationally successful athlete to speak out for what he believed in. At various times during his life, he risked his fame, his titles, and his freedom to affirm the beauty and worthiness of black people, defy the white establishment, and oppose the war in Vietnam. As one of Ali’s funerary speakers Rabbi Michael Lerner states:
“So I want to say, how do we honor Muhammad Ali? [The] answer is—the way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today. And that means us, everyone here and everyone listening. It’s up to us to continue that ability to speak truth to power. We must speak out, refuse to follow the path of conformity to the rules of the game in life.”
Following in the path of Muhammad Ali means we must hold ourselves to—what we believe is—the highest moral integrity, even at potential risk to ourselves. In Dream Baby Dream, as well as in his practice as a whole, it seems likely that Valdez is embodying this idea himself. For example, the painting The City I from The Beginning is Near (Part I) depicts a contemporary meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, reminding us that the violent, poisonous group is still active in America. Valdez carries out this portrayal despite risking his audience’s discomfort, potential misinterpretation, and controversy. Dream Baby Dream calls us to action by depicting the void left in the absence of courage. As in Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, Valdez gives us a somewhat idealized version of the fallen hero. (With many known infidelities, Ali arguably did not have an entirely spotless “moral record.”) However, the ambiguity of the painted scenes allows Valdez’s visual message to land metaphorically, rather than directly on the shoulders of Ali. Dream Baby Dream is not as explicitly political as Rabbi Lerner’s speech or perhaps David’s portrait. Yet, the grayed stripes of the American flag draped behind Valdez’s empty podium create an image that is unmistakable. This is an American scene. Throughout America’s history, opportunities to stand up for justice, freedom, and solidarity have been, and continue to be, daily occurrences.
The two remaining works in Dream Baby Dream depict a starry landscape of funerary flowers and a wreath with the inscription “It’s the dreams that keep…”—both worthy contextual additions to the exhibition. The show’s title is borrowed from the proto-punk band Suicide, who released their song of the same title in 1979. Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream balances pop-y serenity with the disquieting picking of repetition. “Dream baby dream,” Alan Vega sings over and over again, with occasional variations like “Keep those dreams burnin’,” and “It’s the dreams that keep you free, baby.” With acute reminders delivered by the conscientious Valdez, perhaps viewers of Dream Baby Dream will be more empowered to dream of—and fight for—a better America.