Process Driven

 

Elena Pellegrini
Freelance Curator

Process 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.

 

Furthermore, 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.

 

Born 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.

Working 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).

 

How 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?

It's 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.

 

The 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.

 

For 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 production.

 

During the interview, we addressed the function of continuity and development of his work:

Let's 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?

The 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.

 

You 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.

What were the circumstances surrounding your relocating to New York City?

While 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!

 

Is it fair to describe your work as transitional while you were a resident artist at the Blackburn Printmaking Workshop?

Somehow, 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.

 

These 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 production.

 

In 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.

The 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.

 

The 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 place.

 

Analyzing 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 world.

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El proceso creativo en sí, es el impulso que guia a las pinturas, los grabados y las obras técnica mixta del artista Julio Valdez. Cada una de estas evocativas y meticulosas composiciones, revelan un métido de producción orientado por el proceso artístico. Valdez produce grupos de obras en las que explora las múliples posibilidades de sus temas recurrentes, empleando diferentes materiales, estilos y técnicas. Esta exposición incluye cuatro series: mosaicos, laberintos, hombre isla y auto-retrato dominicano. Se debe aclarar que estas no son categorías confinadas. De manera consistente con su juego visual, Valdez entrelaza en cada nueva serie, elementos temáticos de varias series anteriores. Un ejemplo es la infusión de temas de los mosaicos y los auto-retratos dominicanosen muchos otros lienzos y trabajos en papel.

 

Además de esto, ciertas dualidades de su discurso visual, como por ejemplo, lo personal y lo universal, se manifiestan en composiciones figurativas neo-abstractas, realizadas en un arco iris de tonos mutados y colores opulentes, logrados con el uso de acrílicos y pigmentos dispersados, preparados exclusivamente por el artista. Los trabajos en papel incluyen obras en técnica mixta, dibujos y grabados de acuatinta en seda. Cada obra de arte refleja obras anteriores, de una manera sin igual, dada la forma en que el artista esmeradamente re-configura y re-incorpora símbolos enigmáticos y figuras de una composición a la otra.

 

Nacido en Santo Domingo, Julio Valdez estudió en la Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes en Santo Domingo, y en la Escuela de Diseño de Altos de Chavón en La Romana. Es pintor, grabador y profesor; su obra ha sido incluída en exposiciones a través del mundo.Valdez ha recibido numerosos premios de alto prestigio internacional; entre ellos el más reciente, la beca del anual de Artista en Residencia del Studio Museum en Harlem, por el período 1997-98, asi como la beca del Taller de Grabado de Robert Blackburn en el 1994. Reside en la ciudad de Nueva York desde el 1993, donde trabaja como profesor y artista en la programa "Studio in a School". Su nuevo medio ambiente no ha alterado su producción artística de una manera radical; mas bien ha enriquecido su obra, superimponiendo capas del pasado al presente y viceversa. La distancia física y sicológica de su patria, le ha otorgado una cierta objetividad, que lo ayuda inconcientemente a mirar al pasado y (re)examinar sus orígenes. Estos cambios y reflexiones se evidencian en su uso de un idioma visual que hace referencias al primitivismo místico y al simbolismo Afro Caribeño, entre otras influencias.

 

Trabajando entre varias sensibilidades pluri-culturales, Valdez imbuye su trabajo con imágenes multifacéticas, respondiendo a la influencia de los cambios sociales y culturales de su provia vida. En una cálida tarde de verano en su estudio del Noreste de Manhattan, charlamos sobre la importancia del proceso artístico y la transnacionalidad dentro su trabajo. Extractos de nuestro diálogo sirven de contrapunto a este ensayo, con el propósito de presentar los esfuerzos artísticos de Valdez en sus propias palabras, dándole una perspectiva más personal (1).

 

De qué manera ha evolucionado tu trabajo como resultado de estar trabajando en más de una sensibilidad cultural? De qué manera ha influenciado la transnacionalidad a tu obra, desde que resides permanente en la ciudad de Nueva York?

 

Es como ver algo de lado. Se me ocurre una idea y puedo probarla de diversas maneras. Puedo crecer en varias direcciones, pero todavía ser la mísma persona.

 

La habilidad de "probar" o experimentar con una idea de varias maneras, en las permutaciones visuales de Valdez, es en su propia esencia, el acto de transponer o intercambiar imágenes de una superficia a otra. En términos musicales, la palabra "transposición" quiere decir el re-escribir o tocar una composición en otra clave. En efecto, esta exposición se titlula "Transposicións," porque el término captura la esencia de como Valdez vuelve a trabajar magistralmente con ciertas imeagenes en varios lienzos o grabados, manteniendo - a lo largo de ciclos de revisiones y repeticiones - la fiudez de su diálogo visual. No es simple coincidencia que - en términos de color y composición - sus obras anteriores de al final de los ochenta, estaban influenciadas por Debussy y otros compositores impresionistas, y por la música experimental contemporánea.

 

Para el artista, el vivir entre dos culturas le da agudeza, o quizás la habilidad de mirar a su alrededor a través de un lente de foco múltiple, que le da una visión perferal - si así lo desea. Conceptualmente, este acercamiento multifocal provee al artista con un encuadre práctico, para mezclar ciertos aspectos de su herencia cultural con el presente en composiciones introspectivas. Valdez ha expresado que su medio ambiente lo ha ayudado a ampliar sus percepciones. Y cree que "la creatividad es la habilidad de ver y responder" a lo que lo rodea en términos puramente visuales. Parte de esta respuesta intuitiva, es el encontrar movimiento y ritmos fluyentes en lugares que tienden a ser caóticos, como Nueva York o como El Caribe, donde va de visita frecuentemente. Esto es un reto que Valdez acepta, porque lo hace encontrar una estrategia que le da forma al caos que lo rodea, para así poder transformalo en imágenes multi-dimensionales. De esta manera, elementos de diversos lugares y espacios, son sintetizados a través del proceso de serialización. Este aspecto de su obra sugiere que la continuidad tiene una función importante, al mismo tiempo que la fragmentación y la mezcla de elementos en múltiples posibilidades es otra de sus facetas. Cuando uno estudia sus obras, se hace evidente que la continuidad en forma de síntesis, le da una mano vital a la coherencia de la producción artística de Valdez. En el curso de la entrevista, tocamos el tema de la continuidad y su función en el desarrollo de su obra.