Where the Wind Blows

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John Valadez, “Leeds Shoes.” Courtesy of the artist

The Santa Ana winds are powerful air streams that blow down from the Great Basin, across the California coast, and off into the Pacific Ocean. Far from benign, these winds have a propensity to feed wild fires with their persistent, dehydrated gales. Such fires are hard to put out and can cause magnificent infernos.

Those tumultuous winds give their name to the newest exhibiton at the National Museum of Mexican Art, John Valadez’s “Santa Ana Condition.” As the exhibition’s wall text describes, “The winds also evoke the uncanny and specifically California-quality found in his work. In Valadez’s world anything can happen.”

During the exhibition’s opening on April 27, one of the first warm days of the year, street vendors and raucous ball players were out in droves on the streets in Pilsen. The smells of fried food and the shrieks of excited children filled the air. The National Museum of Mexican Art’s corner is a quiet one, tucked away almost as if the neighborhood is guarding the treasures held within. The museum’s somber exterior separates it from the hubbub of the neighborhood outside, making a tantalizing mystery out of its contents.

But inside, there was an air of anticipation amongst the scattered groups of people waiting for the gallery to open. When it did, and I stepped into the center of the first exhibition room, I felt bombarded. Valadez’s realist style, focusing on urban themes, takes the bustle of streets such as Pilsen’s and amplifies it. Each of Valadez’s pieces has its own individual message, often delivered with swaths of bright color and hyper-realistic portrayals of human bodies subjected to oppressive social conditions.

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John Valadez, “Fatima.” Courtesy of the artist

Moving through the three rooms of the gallery is an act of time travel. The first hall displays Valadez’s most recent work, much of it from the early 2000s. The scenes, while infused with realism, are more thematically abstract. These new pieces focus on social strife, but also the weight of history and spiritual transcendence. Valadez has painted the actual walls of the gallery with muted shades of yellow, blue, and green, contrasting them with the more intense palette of colors found in his artworks. The paintings themselves are bright but oppressive, and rife with political entendres.

The second room houses older ephemera from Valadez’s initial artistic forays: photographs of people on the street in his neighborhood in California, life-size sketches of characters from these photographs, and single-subject portraits. Taken individually, each element is simple and self-explanatory, but as a group, they outline the development of characters from beginning to end.

When I sat down with Valadez, a friendly, graying man dressed neatly in black, he said of the first phase of his career:  “The challenge of my early years was to do intense portraiture; to focus on marginalized members of society and give them dignity.” There is a definite metamorphosis that takes place between the people in his snapshots, grabbed on the city streets, and the painted portraits of these same subjects that now hang in gilded frames. Even if they didn’t feel dignified at that point in their lives, Valadez saw it in them and translated his vision to the canvas. His focus was on the person rather than the message.

The last room in the exhibition is also the brightest. Valadez’s artistic vision seems to have been in a more formative stage, as these pieces represent realistic scenes in an expository way. The younger Valadez used his pastels to illustrate girls rolling around in ocean waves and posing at car shows. He used his artwork to reflect the phenomena he observed around him.

“When I was younger I was into identity as a social condition,” Valadez told me. “As I got older I had more fun.” I’m not sure if fun is the word for it, but as Valadez aged, he certainly let loose. The paintings from his younger years were refreshing after the complexities of his later work in that they simply portrayed a social scene, leaving the deeper interpretations to the viewer.

The exhibition in its entirety evokes a feeling of creative abandon–fitting for a collection that takes its name from winds that are notorious for starting wildfires. While Valadez has been a part of a handful of group shows at the National Museum of Mexican Art before, Santa Ana Condition is his first individual exhibition. “Most artists would like to have a show like this. You get to show all your work in one place. I can see how I evolved,” said Valadez. With the pieces from his entire career represented plainly on the gallery walls, Valadez remarks, “Now I see my work with fresh eyes. I was a maniac!”

National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St. Through August 11. Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. Free. (312)738-1503. nationalmuseumofmexicanart.org