is the driving force behind the paintings, prints, and mixed media work
of the artist Julio Valdez. Each evocative and meticulously executed
composition reveals the artist's process-oriented method of artmaking.
Valdez produces bodies of work where multiple possibilities of recurring
themes are explored in different media, styles, and techniques. The
works in this exhibition comprise four series: mosaics, labyrinths,
island man, and Dominican self-portrait. However, these are not confined
categories. Consistent with his visual play, Valdez overlaps thematic
elements from more than one existing series into another. One example
is the melding of the mosaics and Dominican self-portraits series into
multiple paintings or works on paper.
the dualities of his visual discourse such as the personal and universal,
are manifested in Neo-abstract figurative compositions rendered in a
spectrum of muted tones and opulent colors consisting of acrylics and
dispersed pigment exclusively prepared by the artist. Works on paper
include mixed media, drawings, and silk aquatint prints. Each artwork
uniquely resonates previous works in the manner that the artist skillfully
reconfigures and re-incorporates enigmatic symbols and figures from
one composition to the next.
in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, Julio Valdez studied at the
National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, and Altos de Chavón/School
of Design in La Romana. He is a painter, printmaker, and teacher whose
work has been exhibited internationally. Valdez is a recipient of numerous
prestigious international awards, the most recent one being the 1997-98
Studio Museum in Harlem Artist-In-Residence Fellowship. In 1994, he
received a Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop fellowship. He has
been a New York City resident since 1993 where he works as a teaching
artist in the Studio-in-a-School program. The artist's new milieu has
not radically altered his artistic production; it has enriched his work
by superimposing layers from the past to those of the present and vice
versa. The physical and psycological distance from his birthplace has
provided a critical distance that enables the unconscious act of looking
back and (re)examining one's origins. These shifts and reflections are
evident in his use of a visual idiom that references pre-Colombian mythic-primitivism
and Afro-Caribbean symbolism, among other influences.
between pluri-cultural sensibilities, Valdez infuses his work with multi-layered
imagery as a response to the shifting cultural and social influences
in his life. On a hot summer afternoon in his Upper Eastside studio,
we talked about the roles of process and transnationality in his work.
This essay interweaves dialogue from this interview in an effort to
present a more personal perspective about Valdez's artistic endeavors
described in his own words (1).
has your work evolved as a result of working in more than one cultural
sensibility? How has transnationality influenced your work since you
became a permanent resident in New York City?
like seeing something from the side… I have an idea and I am able
to try it in different ways… I can grow in different directions,
but I am still myself.
ability to "try" or experiment with an idea in varying ways
in Valdez's visual permutations is, in and of itself, the act of transposing
or interchanging images from one surface to another. In musical terms,
the word "transposition" means to rewrite or play a composition
in another key. In fact, the exhibit is titled "Transpositions,"
because the term captures the essence of how Valdez masterfully reworks
the imagery in each painting or print while maintaining - through cycles
of revisions and repetition - a fluid visual dialogue. It is not a coincidence
that (in terms of color and composition) the artist's earlier work from
the late eighties was influenced by Debussy and other Impressionists
and contemporary experimental music.
the artist, living between two cultures gives him an edge or the ability
to view his surroundings with a multifocal lens that enables him to
see peripherally - if he chooses. Conceptually, this multifocal approach
furnishes the artist with a practical framework for melding aspects
from his cultural legacy and the present into introspective compositions.
Valdez expressed that his environment has helped him to broaden his
perceptions. And, he believes that "creativity is the ability to
see and respond" to his environment in purely visual terms. As
part of this intuitive response, he finds movement and flowing rhythms
in the sometimes chaotic environs of New York City and the Caribbean,
where he visits on a fairly regular basis. This is a welcome challenge
for Valdez, as it enables him to strategically shape and transfer the
chaos around him into multi-dimensional imagery. In doing so, elements
from different spatial and temporal places are synthesized through the
process of serialization. This aspect of his oeuvre suggests that continuity
has an important function, while another facet is fragmentation and
the assembling of elements that are blended in a variety of possibilities.
Upon viewing the work, it is evident that continuity in the form of
synthesis lends a vital hand to the cohesion found in Valdez's artistic
the interview, we addressed the function of continuity and development
of his work:
discuss for a moment the idea of flow or continuity in your work. The
manner in which you create work is very much like everyday life. In
other words, you are simultaneously navigating between one activity
and another. What was your experience prior to living in New York City?
seed [for this mode of working] was planted earlier in my career [while
living and teaching at Altos de Chavon] (2). Now, I have a bigger "pot"
in which to grow. As a result, I also have more visual stimulation and
higher professional standards. Printmaking is a very important aspect
of my creative endeavors and changing environments has made more information
available to me about the various techniques, qualities, and standards
of the medium.
mentioned that I create work with the same flow of everyday life. I
had worked in this manner before, but it has accelerated since I have
been living here. Although I was in an international community at Altos
de Chavon, my experience was less intense as life there was more insular.
were the circumstances surrounding your relocating to New York City?
I was teaching at Altos de Chavon, I received a fellowship to work in
New York at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop (3). I had reached
a point in my career where I needed to expand. I arrived in New York
City in December 1993. My experience at the Workshop with Mr. Blackburn
taught me to be very humble, diligent, and disciplined, and that you
have to continue working no matter what. I also learned to better appreciate
the aesthetic of printmaking. There is so much beauty in the printmaking
medium and it is such an automonous way of expression. He, [Robert Blackburn]
being from that school that helped that helped to ground and earn respect
for printmaking as an autonomous way of expression, taught me first-hand
about the medium. There I was with the man who helped establish printmaking
in this country!
it fair to describe your work as transitional while you were a resident
artist at the Blackburn Printmaking Workshop?
it was a transitional period. When I came to New York, Blackburn's was
my only studio. For this reason, I focused on printmaking and did not
paint at all for most of the year. I went from January 1994 to September
1994 without painting. I painted again in September 1994, when I had
my first studio in New York on the Lower Eastside. That is when I painted
the works that went to the Caribbean painting biennial: "Los Condenados
de la Tierra" [The Wretched of the Earth] and "Una Mujer Esta
Sola" [A woman is Alone]. These two paintings show how radically
I have changed. I was completely figurative and began responding more
social issues. For example, "Los Condenados de la Tierra"
was about the situation that was going on in Haiti and Rwanda.
earlier works, "Los Condenados de la Tierra" and "Una
Mujer Esta Sola" were the springboard for his new production, some
of which is represented in "Transpositions." At this juncture,
the silhoutte made its appearance while the figurative aspect gradually
became less pronounced, although its ghosts are still visible in new
paintings and works on paper. The silhouette (a dominating element in
the Island Man and Dominican Self-portrait series) is simultaneously
an autobiographic and "everyman" symbol, representing the
continuous search for the inner-self. Valdez's concern with consciousness
as a primordial force, is discernible as the human figure is metaphorically
a site for convergence of the spiritual and the physical worlds. This
primordial or intuitive impulse is deliberately showcased in the mixed
media work on paper "Self-portrait with Hope" [illustration].
Once again, the silhouette makes an appearance in this playful work
created in collaboration with Valdez's students from Studio-in-a-School
program. Working as ateaching artist with grade school children feeds
into the intuitive process often preferred by Valdez. He describes his
experience in the classroom as "stimulating and uninhibiting",
a vehicle that adds yet another perspective to his already multi-dimensional
addition to being a universal symbol, the silhouette is also an autobiographical
or self-reflective element in your work. What prompted this self-reflection?
The silhouette is part of an on-going series now that is found in much
of your work.
silhouette became a point of synthesis in my work and then I began to
use the self-portrait as a mode of self-reflection. The assimilation
of all the different changes [in my life] triggered this self-reflection.
nuances and complexities found in the self-reflective and non-traditional
self-portraits of the Island Man and Dominican Self-portraits series
are likewise explored in the mosaics and labyrinths series. On a literal
level, the mosaics and labyrinths are a reminder of Greco-Roman mythology
and culture. However, in the context of Valdez's work, the use of these
classical western references is not literal, they are merely appropriated
as metaphorical devices to confront themes that are relevant to the
artist. For example, the mosaic symbolizes among other things, the fragmentation
and integration of cultural influences in the Americas. While the labyrinth
may evoke the Greek legend of the Minotaur who killed those who invaded
his territory, it represents the human condition in precarious circumstances.
For Valdez, "the labyrinth is a metaphor for what the Caribbean
region is for me…. it is what the Dominican Republic represents
for me because you never know what you are going to find there. I also
see the labyrinth as a visually interesting way of using space because
of my interest in fragmentation." On another level, the labyrinth
works can be read as metaphors for the human soul and the never ending
search for the inner-self. Mention must also be made of the cartographic
components that are integrated within the four series. The artist's
interest in maps (and in "mapping out new territories") in
relation to the Caribbean and its Colonial past, is illustrated in works
like the germinal painting "The Island Man," 1996. This small
format composition initiated an aggregate of new works that incorporate
geographic imagery. The painting depicts a silhouette of the human figure
in co-existence with the Caribbean region of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto
Rico. This layering of images suggests that bodies (human and geographic)
are metaphorical sites where dualities of intersection and fragmentation,
the physical and spiritual, the personal and the universal, etc. take
Valdez's work, is in some respects like peeling away the very layers
of its totality. In order to fully appreciate the complexity of his
work, it is useful to understand how process propels the artist's creativity.
While the role of process is not unique to Valdez, it is prominent and
deserves a deeper look. "Transpositions" explores the breadth
of the aesthetic and thematic aspects of Valdez's recent body of work,
by illustrating the progression of each work and connecting threads
that weave them together. Similar to artists from different generations,
like Wassily Kandinsky, Jasper Johns, Paul Giudicelli, and Jorge Tacal
(4) among others, whose works reflect varying degrees of process driven
modes of production, Valdez breathes new life into existing works through
reinvention. This continuous means of reinvention, allows him to broaden
his creative possibilities and to respond to a perpetually shifting
© September, 1997
Pellegrini is a free-lance curator who studied at the Center for Curatorial
Studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson. She currently lives in
Westchester County, New York.
Interview with the artist on July 23, 1997 in New York City.
Altos de Chavón/ School of Design, La Romana, Dominican Republic,
affiliated with Parsons School of Design, in NYC.
In 1948, the master printer and educator Robert Blackburn founded The
Printmaking Workshop in New York City.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Russian abstract artist; Jasper Johns
(1930 - ) American painter and printmaker; Paul Giudicelli (1921-1965)
attributed with initiating the search for Dominican cultural identity
using elements of Afro-Caribbean and Taino cultures in abstract compositions;
Jorge Tacla (1958 - ) Chilean contemporary artist.