Julio Valdez

Julio Valdez  Con el Motivo (With the Intention of), 1999  Courtesy of the artistJulio Valdez (b. 1969), a graduate of the innovative Altos de Chavon School of Design, an affiliate of Parsons School of Design, received the Grand Prix at the XVIII E. Leon Jimenez Biennial in his native Dominican Republic in 2000. An artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum of Harlem in the late 1990s, he now has his own studio in Spanish Harlem, where he also helps to exhibit other artists’ works. Valdez has exhibited internationally, winning the Silver Palette at the Trentième Festival de la Peinture, Cagnes-sur-Mer, France. His most recent accolade in his election to the Academy of Letters in New York City. He has been invited by the MTA to propose art projects for subway stations and is very involved in teaching art to grade school children, an endeavour he relishes greatly. Valdez’s work is a captivating synthesis of Caribbean-Latin American symbols of Christianity, ancient Taino and African myths, mixed with contemporary aesthetics. He is also an eloquent spokesman for Latin and Caribbean artists, specifically Dominican. In essence, he believes, any artist must be aware of the demands of the market while maintaining focus on aesthetic principles. Valdez explores different mediums, painting, printmaking, even a hybrid medium that combines painting and printmaking, digital impressions and installation art. In his installation Root of Dreams (Raíz de Sueños) (1999), he combines silhouette forms of a man and lizards with a candlelit circle, evoking his Caribbean Island as “a magical place.”

I had the chance to speak with Valdez in his native tongue, about his art, his country’s difficult past and the love of family, an element he emphasized as the touchstone to his growing success. Gone Brother (solarplate, collage and hand coloring, 2004) pays homage to his brother, who died young. In another work in this series, two halved and manipulated photographic prints have been pasted in a haphazard manner, as if in a gesture toward remembering his brother’s face. The two prints representing the two halves of the brother’s face seem like two cut-out sections of a poster pasted against a stained, white-washed wall.

Valdez’s Harlem studio, in true nineteenth-century style, is a salon for viewing and discovering different aspects of his art, drinking wine and discussing the relation between art and poetry. Poetry and literature envelop Valdez’s consciousness and feed his art. He spoke of the famous poem by the Dominican Republic’s poet laureate Pedro Mir, “Hay un pais en el mundo,” a song of social protest and of the neglected rights of the landless Dominican campesino during the Trujillo dictatorship. Valdez also spoke of his friend, the Dominican poet Jose Bodadilla, who stayed as a guest in the studio. The title of a poem by the Chilean Pablo Neruda became the inspiration for Te regalo una rosa (I give you a rose) (1998). The artist’s body, seen from the back, is silhouetted and superimposed upon many representations of swatches of paper depicting fish, the bleeding heart of Christ, a strawberry, flora and fauna: the visual traditions of the island, specifically the ancestral Taino mythologies of the Yachu, the God of creation and the yucca plant. The paper boat is reminiscent of childhood and also represents the yoles, the simple, fragile vessels Dominicans use to flee their island. The rose figures prominently all through the length of the figure, transforming the exiled body, or rather the “absent Dominican,” a term for Dominican citizens living abroad, and the flower into offerings to the distant native island of past memories.

Valdez’s studio features a printmaking machine. The artist grew up in the world of prints. His brother established the first printmaking facility at the Altos de Chavon School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, where he learned lithography. In 1993, at the age of twenty-four, Valdez had his first of many solo print exhibitions, and he continues to this day to explore different methods of printmaking by mounting exhibits, giving workshops and teaching printmaking at Cooper Union. Valdez’s use of mixed media is imaginative. The 1998 triptych Pájaros Enjaulados (Cuando la Inocencia se ha Perdido, ¿Donde podemos ir?), Caged Birds (When Innocence Is Is Gone, Where Can We Go?) combines acrylic, collage and pigments. An ominous, prison-like center space is flanked by an old-fashioned image of lost children and a simplified sketch of the birds, against a field of squared reds and purples. The 1999 Con el Motivo (With the Intention of) juxtaposes a drawn portrait of a man, seen in profile, with an overall repeating pattern of simplified prostrate human forms. Valdez’s exploration of the figure is humane and innovative, mythic and personal.

Butterfly Island / Isla Mariposa (2004) is an aerial view of a seascape with an island in the shape of a butterfly. Complementary colors of blue, green and a touch of yellow form the sea that seems to submerge the butterfly-island, rendering it almost dream-like. The butterfly suggests a gentler and more hopeful representation of Santo Domingo and Haiti. In 1777, after France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez, they became two independent countries on a single island, but border disputes, some bloody in the past, continue to this day. In an interview published in Artez en Santo Domingo (April / June, 2005), Valdez expresses his constant exploration of identity. When he travels back and forth between the United States and the Dominican Republic, he has a “keener perception” of himself. The social dramas of migration and exile in the Caribbean are a part of him. His series Panoramic Views, as in Isla Mariposa, are “glimpses of the island landscape through the airplane window as I’ve traveled back and forth.

Julio Valdez was nominated for the Annual Painting Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005. His work was featured in the June 2005 exhibition “The Solarplate Revolution in El Barrio, Taller Boricua, NYC.” In October 2006, he will have a solo show at Latin American Masters, Beverly Hills, California, on the web at www.latinamericanmasters.com. His work appears in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum, the Library of Congress, the World Bank and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Puerto Rico.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2006, Volume 23, Number 2