Chevy headlights light the scene, throwing it into dramatic chiaroscuro. Erect white hoods crease and wrinkle over their wearers' heads and wisps of smoke and dust stain the satiny black sky.
"The City," comprising Vincent Valdez's paintings The City I and The City II, fills an isolated room in the Blanton Museum of Art, long and narrow to accommodate I's 30-foot panoramic length. To see the whole piece, you must walk the length of the room, taking in each larger-than-life figure, making uncertain eye contact as you go, as you might at a party. This is the subject of the painting, a gathering. We see a group winding down from a Klan meeting. We've interrupted them. The painting is realistic, done in grayscale and unbelievably detailed.
What we see are not acts of hate and violence, but mundane organization. Here is bureaucracy, a clipboard in pudgy fingers; canceled child care, a stuffed toy dangling in front of a tiny hooded face; and camaraderie, a huddled group conversing, arms around one another, annoyed at an interloper. Unlike Valdez's The Strangest Fruit series, depicting Mexican lynching victims (two pieces of which are also on display at the Blanton), this is not a portrait of the victimized or overt violence, but one of conspiration. The work is all the more frightening.
The Blanton is cautious in its display of the show, prohibiting photos and providing a host in the room to speak with viewers who have questions. Online, there is an 11-chapter interactive page for the show. Speaking to The New York Times, Blanton director Simone Wicha explained the museum's decision to push display of the works back a year following the 2016 presidential election, saying, "It would be as if we had acquired it for a political statement, or the artist had painted it for a political statement."
The sentiment seems a feeble attempt to curtail a foregone conclusion. The intertwining of white nationalism and politics is undeniable and immediately recognizable, historically and visually. The City is not the only work of monumental art shown in Austin recently depicting the Klan. At the Contemporary Austin, Rodney McMillian's Untitled (neighbors) showed hooded figures convulsing ritualistically around a stark white light in a video installation displayed behind a vinyl White House. While the title implies a social proximity, McMillian's figures seemed otherworldly in their evil. Compared to McMillian's unknowable ghouls, Valdez's Klanspeople are rendered with such specificity that recognizing someone seems entirely possible. Arguably the source of the Klan's resurgence and adoption of the white hooded uniform, the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation was the first American film to be shown in the White House. It also displays the Klan as neighborly, ending happily in marriage for one member. These ties, social, political, and historical, are the stuff of Valdez's details.
In the smaller The City II, smoldering torches protrude from a burn barrel in front of a trash heap. We are outside the city, on the fringes, but unmistakably a part of its infrastructure. The heap is disgusting. One imagines its filth trickling down into the city below and wants nothing more than to light it on fire.
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