If you haven’t yet seen “The Strangest Fruit” in person, this is the last week to see the exhibition before it closes Sunday, Aug. 31, at Artpace.
“The Strangest Fruit” is a series of works by artist Vincent Valdez that makes reference to both the historical and metaphorical lynching of Mexican-Americans in the U.S. Depicting 10 dangling male bodies, Valdez presents one of his boldest and most ambitious series of works to date. Within each canvas, a singular, slightly larger-than-life-sized figure is depicted against a background of complete whiteness. With the ropes used to tie the individuals and most other details eliminated, the focus here lies solely on the hanging bodies. Valdez’s “The Strangest Fruit” series illustrates a part of American history that has long been neglected by scholars and remains largely unknown by the general public.
As described by historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb in their book “The Forgotten Dead,” the last Mexican-American to have been publicly lynched in the U.S. was Rafael Benavides on November 16, 1928, in Farmington, New Mexico. After an alleged assault upon a farmer’s wife, Benavides was shot by a sheriff and admitted to the hospital. Within 24 hours a mob of local citizens broke into the hospital, abducted Benavides from his bed, drove him to an abandoned farmhouse, and hung him from a locust tree. While none of the offenders faced any legal action, Benavides was the last known Mexican American to be lynched in complete defiance of the law, reflecting a new racial sensibility through out the Southwest.
In one of the most striking images from the series, a figure with his hands tied behind him displays an elaborate tattoo across his back consisting of the words “In Memory.” With the ropes around his hands made invisible, the figure could just as easily be in handcuffs. The shirtless figure, wearing his pants slightly below his waist, reveals his dark-colored, striped boxer shorts underneath. His yellow shoelaces, dangling below the bottoms of his tennis shoes, are the only reminder that this figure is in midair rather than standing. Here, a contemporary urban Mexican-American male replaces the historical figures of the past that were lynched throughout Texas and the Southwest U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century.
With “The Strangest Fruit,” Valdez continues to build on a theme that consistently features the male figure as martyr. In the 2001 series of drawings, “Made Men,” exhibited at the Finesilver Gallery, Valdez depicted the faces of four young urban male “types.” Borrowing his titles for that series from the Bob Dylan song “I Shall be Released,” about the possible redemption of prisoners, Valdez was suggesting both a literal and figurative release for his figures. For Valdez, redemption and transformation have become central to his work.
In 2004, at the age of 26, Valdez became the youngest artist to present a solo exhibition, “Stations,” a series of large-scale charcoal drawings at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. Referencing the Stations of the Cross, or the last days of Jesus before his crucifixion, “Stations” depicted the last fight in the life of a young boxer. In that series, Valdez defiantly brings his boxer back to life in the final image of the series — a trading card with the boxer fully restored to his former glory in a classic boxing pose. Eight years later, Valdez returned to the McNay with the exhibition of “America’s Finest.” That exhibition included a series of paintings known collectively as “Excerpts for John,” depicting the funeral of Valdez’s close friend, combat medic John Holt Jr. After his return home in 2009 from a tour of duty in Iraq, Holt, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide.
As in each of his previous series, Valdez’s figures in” The Strangest Fruit” travel across space and time as the artist takes liberties interweaving and mixing various times and eras. Such subtle detail then makes it clear that Valdez’s series are not direct narratives but rather surreal imagery where artist and subject and past and present become one. In an email sent earlier this year, Valdez stated, “Although the hanging bodies from ‘The Strangest Fruit’ series was sparked or loosely inspired by the erased Texas lynching history, it is my aim to be able to have these images be as interesting and as relevant to viewers who know nothing about Texas history.”
Like all great work, Valdez’s is multi-layered. We can take it at face value or explore the metaphors and, no doubt, the autobiographical sketches revealed within.
With “The Strangest Fruit,” Valdez transforms Artpace’s Hudson (Show) Room into a sort of sacred space. As the viewer stands at the center of the gallery, he may become aware that he is witnessing a transformation of the suspended bodies depicted in each of the nine paintings. Here, young Mexican-American men, whose lives were previously undervalued in the society in which they lived, become god-like beings. In death, Valdez’s figures find redemption. In this series, Valdez’s figures may be interpreted as not hanging from trees, but rather rising above their obstacles on earth. Valdez further states, “I’m not interested in the art history aspect of religious painting, but rather am drawn to parallels of the myths and legends of martyrs throughout time.” As the early Christian martyrs understood, death was not the end but the beginning of an eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom – a kingdom far superior to any earthly ruler’s.
It was perhaps no coincidence when I spoke to William D. Carrigan, through email one early Easter Sunday, 2014, as he reflected upon Valdez’s “The Strangest Fruit,” calling it an “important work.” An essay titled “Reaction to Vincent Valdez’s ‘The Strangest Fruit” was later posted that day on Carrigan’s Facebook page.
In another work from “The Strangest Fruit” series, a figure dressed casually in a sweater and jeans has his hands bound together in front of him. With his head tilted back, he appears almost to be gazing upwards as a golden light covers his face. Despite the horrific events that have just transpired, there appears to be a sense of peacefulness to the painting. More than any other work, this painting resembles the crucifixion of Christ.
Not since the 2001 painting “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” has Valdez chosen to emphasize violence, wisely choosing to stray away from it in his portrayals of injustice. Rarely does Valdez depict his figures within violent acts of aggression, but rather, just before or after – as in the series “Stations” – presenting his figures in a moment of contemplation. In “The Strangest Fruit” series, with his figures presumably dead, Valdez ensures their dignity by respectfully focusing on their bodies rather than on the acts of violence that may have occurred.
With “The Strangest Fruit” series, Valdez boldly re-examines the role between victim and victimizer. Missing from each painting in the series are the throngs of spectators most commonly seen in lynching photography of the late 19th and early 2oth centuries. Gone are the empty gazes, the smirks, and pointing fingers of the white crowds who gathered to stare at the hanging bodies. Instead, Valdez presents us with an empty background bringing all attention to his male figures. The hanging bodies, now resurrected and free from all wounds and scars, have been saved. Here, it is perhaps the spectators, and the oppressors, who are the real victims.
Often portraying his subjects throughout his career as athletes, “street thugs,” and “men at war,” Valdez is careful to keep his art hopeful, leaving the possibility of rebirth and transformation open. In “The Strangest Fruit,” Valdez’s figures, although faced with tragic circumstances during their lifetimes, are resurrected, suggesting not the defeat but the continuing fight for equality for Mexican-Americans. In his efforts to depict Christ-like figures, Valdez’s work ultimately argues for a more compassionate and understanding society where all men are treated as equals.
Overall, Valdez’s “The Strangest Fruit” is an impressive body of work that reveals the artist’s brilliance. Once again, Valdez has outdone himself in the process of his own resurrection, as he attempts to follow his previous series, “Stations” (2004) and “Excerpts for John” (2012).
*Featured/top image:Vincent Valdez’s “The Strangest Fruit” at Artpace. Photo by Alex Dubois.