Surface and Symbol: Julio Valdez and the Printed Image

 

Judith B. Hecker
Assistant Curator. Department of Prints & Illustrated Book. Museum of Modern Art.

Leaves cast to the wind, paper boats, hybrid animals and plants still in gestation, enigmatic drawings, fading colors, wavering outlines and the echo of their shadow: these are the signs of a precarious, ineffable and transient poetry, as fluid as running water or sand sifting through our fingers, a poetry that traces and untraces itself, appears and vanishes, is hinted at then finally rests in the work of Julio Valdez.

 

His is a minor key, discreet, filled to the brim with ellipses, ghostly voices, yearnings and reveries. But this minor key is resolved through the use of a broader tonality as well as coherence and an impact that are surprising for such a young artist. His visual vocabulary has been built upon and articulated through a syntax that leaves no room for fashionable trends or imported expressions. A signature that is personal or, better still, intimate and introspective, is what shapes each stroke, each shading, and every association generated by those fragmented and hybrid shapes which are caught somewhere between abstraction and representation, sign and symbol, contemporary discourse and primitive form.

 

In Valdez's work there is a spatial uncertainty. While there is no depth of field, there is a resonant aura of color which creates a world in suspense, conveying a sense of time not yet defined; his universe does not belong to the here and now, but to longing and nostalgia, to a world not yet created, gathering elements for future existence. The artist gives us some facts concerning, for instance, longing and nostalgia, but he prefers to keep them loose, as if chosen at random, at the edge of a non-linear sentimental memory (even when it could be a collective memory, as well), moving to the rhythm of shared dreams.

 

On the other hand, his line seems steady, profound, and direct. It has the freshness and spontaneity of children's drawings and primitive paintings. It is quick, as though drawn automatically. Tracing the human silhouette, it creates a self-portrait unconcerned with anecdotal likeness that expands from the personal to the collective. The outline of a body becomes the iconography of an island, encompassing, as it transcends the individual, others who are also part of the self. As the individual self is multiplied and made corporeal, it is linked to a destiny beyond identity. A body intertwined with land, its outline that of an island. It becomes an "island-man," as Valdez defines himself. The island and the human body are sprouting flowers and thorns. Surrounding them are plants, animals, shapes that recall an indigenous culture, fragments of bodies, other bodies - a partial inventory forever incomplete but always outlined, just like the "island-man."

 

Early Years

Julio Valdez's printed oeuvre attests to the significant role that printmaking can play in artist's career. Since1988, Valdez has made nearly 50 editioned prints, at least as many related proofs, and over 100 monotypes. His experimental mixture of techniques and openness to new processes continue to expand his creative program and the technical range of his work in all mediums.

 

Valdez grew up in an environment of prints. He still recalls the smell of ink permeating his boyhood house in Santo Domingo, where his older brother set up a screenprint workspace. As a young teenager Valdez experimented at his brother's professional workshop, which specialized in screenprint on paper, in the fine art tradition, and also on fabric for commercial purposes. Beginning at age seventeen Valdez studied for three consecutive summers at the Altos de Chavón School of Design in la Romana, where his brother had established the school's first printmaking facility. During the school year, he attented the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, where he learned lithography. It was at this time that Valdez recalls beginning to grasp the full creative potential of printmaking.

 

Valdez continued studies as a full-time student at Altos de Chavón and, after graduating in 1988, was among a group of students selected for a works on paper exhibition at the Omar Rayo Museum, home to a renowned collection of Latin American prints and drawings amassed by the prominent Colombian painter and printmaker. This was Valdez's first professional break, and precipitated the formation of the young artist group, Q-Atro XXI. 1 Feeding off their collective energy and momentum, he and his peers produced prints at a feverish pace. Over the next few years, Valdez developed a visceral connection between his creative inspirations and the hands-on technical processes of printmaking. By 1993- at the young age of twenty-four-Valdez had his first of many solo print exhibitions. 2

 

Collaboration

A special aspect of printmaking is its collaborative nature. Although some artists create prints on their own, most attempt printmaking at the encouragement of a publisher or workshop that provides the resources and facilities to produce and distribute their prints. This system can result in a rich and rewarding dialogue between artist and master printer. Valdez's printmaking matured and expanded in response to two such collaborations, which in turn led to important thematic developments in his work.

 

In 1994, Valdez received a prestigious fellowship at the Printmaking Workshop in New York, established 1948 by artist and master printer Robert Blackburn. Blackburn, who in the early 1980's had advised Altos de Chavón on the purchase of a press, met Valdez at the suggestion of the school's director. Shortly into their meeting, Blackburn offered Valdez a one-year fellowship at the Printmaking Workshop, a renowned facility that provides opportunity for international artists - many of color - to take classes in a variety of printmaking techniques, use the workshop facilities, and participate in exhibitions. There, Valdez learned new techniques previously inaccessible to him. It was a time of complete technical immersion and exploration. Moreover, the large, open, democratic space of the workshop, as Valdez describes it, encouraged great synergy among artists, both inside and outside the classroom.

 

As his fellowship neared its end, another opportunity presented itself in the form of a phone call from one of Blackburn's former master printers, Kathy Caraccio, 3 who was seeking a temporary editioning assistant. Interested, Valdez volunteered for the job. Within days of working as her assistant, Caraccio sensed Valdez's vast experience and asked him to create his own work on the press. This incident resulted in what has become the artist's most sensitive and rewarding relationship with a printer. "It was love at first sight," 4 Valdez recalls. In contrast to Blackburn's vibrant group dynamic, Caraccio offered an intimate working environment, in which artist and printer partnered to find new methods for accomplishing what Valdez sought to express. There, Valdez could practice quietly on his own, while Caraccio fine-tuned his experiments and slowly introduced him to new processes.

 

Technique

Although two dimensional, Valdez's prints are anything but flat. The ink, paper, and complex matrices compressed under the weight of the press create intricate lines and textured surfaces that are tactile. Throughout his career, Valdez has consistently engaged print processes that appeal to the touch as much as to sight. This method parallels the artist's approach to his mixed - media painting - applying a combination of acrylic paint, acrylic pigments, and ink onto paper which is mounted onto canvas or jute. In print, he achieves this layered quality with a similarly hands-on approach that combines an array of printmaking processes, often utilizing non-traditional materials.

 

Early on, in Santo Domingo, Valdez combined screenprint and collagraph, sometimes adding the technique of inkless embossing. With screenprint, a form of stenciling, an artist creates a design on tightly stretched mesh (or silk), and then forces ink through the remaining openings in the mesh onto paper underneath. In collagraph, various three-dimensional materials are fixed, or collaged, to the surface of a plate. When inked and run through the press, the plate produces a relief effect on the paper. Similarly, inkless embossing creates a sculptural relief by printing dampened paper on a collaged plate. By layering one versatile medium on top of the other, Valdez set the stage for his current immersion in the visual effects of overlapping and transparency.

 

Beginning in 1994, at Caraccio's suggestion and under her expert guidance, Valdez began working with the technique she terms "silk aquatint." Although technically related to collagraph, its name - silk aquatint - refers to the visual tonal effects of aquatint, rather than to the intaglio technique of aquatint itself, which involves powered resin and acid. 5 To create his silk aquatints, Valdez glues finely woven polyester onto a stiff cardboard or sanded plastic backing, and then creates a design by applying a mixture of acrylic paint and a gloss medium in varying amounts. The plate is then wiped (as one would an etching plate), and printed using a press. Those areas partially "blocked out" by the design retain much less ink, creating lighter shades of color. Silk Aquatint also allows Valdez the freedom to apply two or more colors to the plate at a time. This capability propelled his printed work away from an earlier monochromatic palette.

 

In recent years, Valdez has experimented even more aggressively with color through the addition of two techniques: à la poupée and chine collé. Subtle, painterly mixtures of color are achieved using à la poupée (poupée is the French word for "doll"), in which several colors are applied to the plate using small clothe dabbers (resembling a doll's head). This enables greater blending, particularly when printing with dampened paper. Chine collé is the method of adhering thin pieces of colored paper, torn or cut to a desired shape, to the larger printing paper at the same time that the inked image is printed. The poetic color effects of these techniques are accentuated by the texture of the fine polyester mesh underneath. The rich surfaces of prints such as Pair and Profile with Thorns convey this medley of processes.

 

In addition to his silk aquatints, Valdez frequently creates monotypes - unique prints made from a plate that has been drawn or painted, in Valdez's case using printer's ink, and then transferred onto paper. It is an intriguing hybrid that combines painting and printmaking for a spontaneous and direct outcome - an approach that appeals to Valdez. Yet the spontaneous look of this technique belies its complexity. Valdez often reworks the residual "ghost" image on his plate, adding markings to create a second print with variations. He also frequently adds handwork to his monotypes using wax crayons and gouache, further blurring the boundaries between his mediums. Me veo Claramente is one of Valdez's most complex monotypes. In addition to creating a traditional monotype, here Valdez has added a trace monotype by drawing (or tracing) on the back of the paper with the plate underneath. He also repeatedly stamped the back of the print with the circular container from an empty glue stick, thereby transferring the shape to the front.

 

Meaning

The texture, tonality, and layering of Valdez's prints - as well as the physicality of his processes - are linked to the meaning and symbolism of his work. As with his mixed-media paintings, Valdez describes his hand application of materials to the printing plate as a way of paying homage to ancient cultural traditions of Africa and Latin America. In addition, the symbols Valdez incorporates in his work suggest a deep connection to his heritage.

Although rudimentary and fragmented figures can be found in Valdez's early printed abstractions, a clear human presence - in the form of a silhouetted body - emerged in 1994 and remained through the decade. This change occurred while Valdez was at the Printmaking Workshop in New York. During this time, Valdez was without a painting studio, so the press was his only creative outlet. After settling permanently in New York, the silhouette motif spread to his work in all mediums, affirming the creative primacy of his printed work. Valdez describes the silhouette as both autobiographical 6 and, in its horizontal orientation, representative of a slave being transported by ship to the Caribbean. It is a human figure with an anonymous presence - a shadow or imprint that evokes both an individual's experience and a shared history. The absence of identifiable characteristics, such as a face, contributes to the sense that Valdez's figures are tied to his present life, away from his homeland, and to his ancestral past.

 

In the late 1990's, Valdez's painted silhouettes were joined by other imagery. He introduced plant, marine, and animal life - in particular the lizard and the Yuca plant, both indigenous to the Dominican Republic - as well as abstract forms and text. On certain canvases, collage elements with these symbols surround an isolated silhouette; on other canvases, the symbols cover the entire composition in a grid of collage, superimposed by the silhouette. Valdez's interest in overlapping planes corresponds to his printed work from this period. To compensate for the smaller size of his prints, his grid of symbols recedes into the background and the superimposed figure looms larger. In addition, he often reduces the silhouette to a bust or head to accommodate the scale of his prints, while still communicating the power of his larger painted silhouettes.

 

With the year 2000, came yet another visual and thematic change. In contrast to the silhouettes of the previous decade, Valdez's new work reveals the inescapable physicality of the body showing all that was previously omitted. Dismembered body parts and flayed flesh in works such as Features and To the Bones II suggest a new awareness of the human body and morbidity. Although connected metaphorically to struggle and his country's past, this work is also linked to widespread contemporary artistic concerns about the body and public awareness of private, internal functions. Interestingly, however, this shift in imagery has not been filtered through Valdez's printmaking. His new prints remain focused on the image of the head, perhaps because he has not yet exhausted all its technical permutations.

 

Even without the background of Valdez's life and techniques, his work can elicit emotional and visceral responses in the viewer. This is most evident in one body part continuosly depicted, even from his earliest work - the Sacred Heart. But less a religious statement than a symbol, the heart has persisted as a spiritual and intuitive insignia for Valdez. It is an emblematic organ that guides his art, as it does his life.

 

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Los primeros años

La obra impresa de Julio Valdez da fé del papel tan importante que el grabado juega en la carrera de un artista. Desde 1988, ha creado cerca de 50 grabados de edición limitada, al menos la misma cantidad de pruebas de los mismos y más de 100 monotipos. Su experimentación en la mezcla de técnicas y su apertura a la utilización de nuevos metos le permiten expandir su programa creativo y ampliar el rango técnico de su trabajo en todos su medios.

 

Valdez creió en un ambiente de grabado. Todavía recuerda que en su infancia el olor de la tinta impregnaba su casa en Santo Domingo, donde su hermano mayor tenía un espacio para hacer serigrafia. A principio de su adolescencia, Valdez hacía los primeros experimentos en el taller profesional de su hermano, quien se especializaba en serigrafia sobre papel a la manera tradicional de las artes plasticas. Comenzando a lo 15 años, Valdez estudió tres veranos consecutivos en la Escuela de Diseños Altos de Chavón en la Romana, donde su hermano había establecido el primer taller de grabado de dicha escuela. Durante el año escolar estudiaba en la escuela de Artes Plásticas de Santo Domingo, donde apredió a hacer litografía. El recuerda haber sido ésta la primera vez que empezó a tomar conciencia de todo el potencial creative del grabado.

Continuó sus estudios a tiempo completo en Altos de Chavón tomando talleres de grabado y otors cursos de arte. Luego de su graduación en 1988, Valdez y otros nueve jóvenes artistas recibieron el honor de ser seleccionados para una exposición de trabajos en papel en el Museo Omar Rayo, el cual es conocido por la colección de dibujos y grabados Latinoamericanos que el prominente pintor e impresor colombiano posee. Este fué el primer encuentro profesional de Valdez que de paso, aceleró la creación del grupo de jóvenes artistas Q-Atro XXI, 1 quienes nutriéndose de su impetu y energia colectiva realizaban grabados a un ritmo ferviente. Durante los años subsiguientes, Valdez desarolló una conexión visceral entre su inspiraciones creativas y su experticia en el proceso técnico de grabado. Ya para 1993, con tan solo 24 años de edad, Valdez obtuvo su primera de muchas exposiciones individuales de grabado. 2

 

Colaboración

Un aspecto muy especial del grabado es su naturaleza colaborativa. A pesar de que algunos artistas realizan grabado por sus propios medios, la mayoria incurre en este campo alentados por un editor o un taller que provee de los recursos y las instalaciones necesarias para la producción y distribución de éstos trabajos. Este sistema puede resultar en un provechoso y enriquecedor y diálogo entre el artista y el maestro impresor. El grabado de Valdez maduró y creció como producto de dichas colaboraciones, lo cual le llevó a desarrollar una temática importante en su obra.

En 1994, recibió una beca de gran prestigio para trabajar en el Printmaking Workshop en Nueva York, institución fundala en 1948 por el maestro impressor Robert Blackburn, quien fuera consulado por la administración de la escuela de Altos de Chavón para la compra de su prensa, en esa oportunidad conoció a Valdez a través de su director. Valdez fue invitado a mostrarle su portafolio a Blackburn con el resultado de que poco después le ofreciera una beca de un año en el Printmaking Workshop, taller que como ya señaláramos, goza de enorme crédito, dedicándose dentro de sus capítulos al apoyo con oportunidades de ingreso a artistas internacionales para que se formen en las variadas técnicas de grabado que allí se enseñan, utilicen sus instalaciones y participen en exposiciones y programas de extensión profesional. Allí fue que Valdez aprendío los nuevos métodos que antes estaban fuera de su alcance, siendo esta una época de inmersión técnica y de exploración estética. Por otra parte, el espacio amplio y democrático del taller, tal y como lo describe Valdez, lograba una gran sinergia entre los artistas, tanto dentro como fuera del salón de clases.

Finlizando la beca de Blackburn, otra oportunidad se le prentaría a Valdez. Esta vez Kathy Caraccio, 3una maestra impresora que solía trabajar con el maestro, buscaba un asistente temporal para ediciones. Interesado, Valdez aceptó. A los pocos días de su labor, Caraccio se dió cuents de la vasta experiencia de Valdez y le pidió que creara su propio trabajo en el taller. Asi nació la que se convertiría en la relacion más gratificante y significativa que Valdez haya tenido con un maestro impresor. "Fue amor a primera vista" 4 recuerda Julio. En contraste con bajo más íntimo en el cual el artista impresor, específicamente Valdez, se integraba para encontrar nuevos métodos mediante los cuales obtener lo que buscaba expresar. Aquí pudo practicar trnquilamente, mientras Caraccio pulía sus exploraciones y lo introducía a nuevas técnicas.

 

Técnica

Aunque bidimencionales, los grabados de Valdez son todo menos planos. La tinta, el papel y las complejas matrices comprimidas bajo el peso de la prensa crean líneas intrincadas y superficies texturizadas que terminan resultando táctiles. A lo largo de su carrera, Valdez se ha propuesto consistentemente desarrollar un método de grabado que sea atractivo tanto al tacto como a la vista. Dicho método va paralelo al enfoque del artista en la técnica mixta de su pintura en la cual aplica una combinación de materiales acrilicos y tinta sobre papel que luego es montado sobre pocedimientos de impresión con el uso frecuente de materiales poco ortodoxos.

 

Con anterioridad, en Santo Domingo, Valdez combinaba la impresión serigráfica y la colografía, y añadía algunas veces la técnica del relieve sin tinta. En la impresión serigráfica, especie de esténcil, el artista realiza un diseño sobre una maya (platilla de seda) muy bien estirada que se cubre con tinta para que al ser presionada salga por las aperturas de la maya hacia el papel que debe encontrarse debajo. En colografía, varios materiales tridimensionales son aplicados o encolados a la superficie de la plancha. Una vez entintada y corrida por la prensa, la plancha produce un efecto de relieve en el papel. De manera parecida, el relieve sin tinta crea un embozado escultural al imprimir papel húmedo en una placa encolad. Aplicando una capa de un medio versátil encima del otro, Valdez crea el escenario para la sumersión de cada pieza en el efecto visual de la transparencia y la yuxtaposición.

A partir de 1994, bajo la segerente y experta guía de Caraccio, Valdez comenzó a trbajar con la técnica que ella denomina seda acuatinta. Aunque está relacionada con el método de colografía, su nombre, seda acuatinta, se refiere al efecto visual de la acuatinta más que a la técnica intaglio de la misma, la cual implica el uso de resina en polvo y ácido. 5 Para la creación de seda acuatinta, Valdez engoma mayas de poliéster de tejido fino a un cartón o a una placa de plástico lijada, luego realiza un diseño aplicando una mezcla de pintura acrílica blanca más barniz en diversas cantidades. Al final la plancha se entinta y se limpia, como se haria con una de aguafuerte, y se pasa por la prensa. Como ocurre en la serigrafía, las åreas bloqueadas por el diseño retienen menos tinta, creando así tonos más claro. Esta técnica también le ha proporcionado a Valdez la libertad de aplicar en una plancha dos colores o más a la vez. Esta posibilidad lo impulsó a alejarse desde temprano de la casi convencional paleta monocromática.

 

En los años recientes, Valdez ha experimentado con el color de manera aún más agresiva al añadir a sus esquemas dos técnicas mas: à la poupèe y chine collè. De una manera muy delicada, se obtienen mezclas cromáticas con el uso de à la poupèe (muñeca, en francés), la cual consiste en la aplicacción de varios colores a la plancha mediante moñitos de tela en forma de cabeza de muñeca. Esto permite una mezcla mejor, particularmente cuando se utiliza el papel humedecido. Chine collè es el método mediante el cual se adhiere trozos delgados de papel, (razgados o recortados en la forma deseada) a una superficie entintada de la plancha que luego se pasará por la prensa. Conjuntamente, éste efecto cromático tan poético es acentuado mediante la impresión de la maya de poliester estirada sobre la plancha de cartón o de plástico lijado. Las suntuosas superficies grabados como Pareja y Perfil con Espinas llevan esta mezcolanza de técnicas.

 

Además de sus sedas acuatintas, Valdez realiza con frecuencia monotipos, los cuals le permiten experimentar una culminación instantánea. Los monotipos son piezas únicas de impresión que se logran utilizando una plancha en la cual se ha dibujado o pintado, en el caso especifico de Valdez, con tinte de impresión que luego la imágen es transferida al papel. Es un híbrido fascinante que combina pintura e impresión para logar un resultado espontáneo y directo, algo que atrae muchísimo a Valdez. La apariencia espontánea de este medio se contradice con la complejidad de dicha téchnica. Valdez usualmente retoma la imágen residual de su plancha al añadir marcas que crean una segunda impresión con variantes. De igual manera, con frecuencia trabaja a mano éstos monotipos utilizando creyones de cera y guache para disimular así las fronteras que pudiesen advertirse entre sus medios.Me veo Claramente es uno de los monotipos más complejos de Valdez. En esta pieza, además de la técnica de monotipo tradicional, Valdez agregó un monotipo de trazo al dibujar en la perte posterior del papel y con la plancha por debajo. También estampó repetidamente, usando la tapa cicular de una barrita de goma, la parte tracera de la pieza, transfiriendo de esta manera la imagen a la parte frontal.

 

Significado

La textura, laboriosidad y tono en capas de los grabados de Valdez, asi como la materialización de sus procesos, están ligados al significado y a el simbolismo de su obra. Tal y como en su acervo pictórico de técnica mixta, Valdez describe su aplicación manual de materiales a la plancha de grabado, como una manera de rendir homenaje a las antiguas tradiciones culturales de África y América Latina. Así mismo los símbolos que Valdez incorpora a su trabajo sugieren una profunda conexión con su herencia racial. Aunque podemos encontrar figuras rudimentarias y fracionadas en sus primeros grabados abstractos, una clara presencia humana, en forma de silueta corporal, surgió en 1994 y a permanecido a lo largo de la década. Este cambio aconteció cuando Valdez estaba en elPrintmaking Workshop, en Nueva York, época durante la cual Valdez no poseía un estudio para trabajar, siendo la prensa su única salida creativa. Después, de establecerse permanentemente en Nueva York, el motivo de la silueta se esparció en todo su trabajo, afirmando así la primacía de la fuerza creativa detrás de su obra impresa.

 

Valdez describe la silueta como la suya propía y en su forma horizontal, como la representación de un esclavo al ser transportado por barco hacia en Caribe. Es la figura humana como una presencia anónima: una sombra o huella que evoca tanto la experiencia individual como una historia compartida. La ausencia de características identificables como el rostro humano contribuyen al hecho de que las figuras de Valdez están atadas a su presente, lejos de tierra y su ancestros.