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Vincent Valdez Artpace Exhibit Bears "Strangest Fruit"

Mark Menjivar

San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez has created an exhibition that, let’s face it, is a little disturbing. But then, maybe art, from time to time, should be.

It’s called "Strangest Fruit" and it’s at Artpace. It owes its concept from the Abel Meeropol poem "Strange Fruit," which was penned about seeing lynched black people hanging from trees in the South. Valdez said there's something perhaps even more unsettling than the subject for that poem.

“There’s an even deeper and darker side to an already sinister period of American history, something we haven’t been told," he said.

That dark side: Several thousand Hispanics and Mexicans were also lynched in the early part of the 20th century. But these events are generally not known, nor talked about.

“This erased history: As an artist it’s something I tend to gravitate towards in my own work,” said Valdez.

The artist takes an interesting tact in telling this "erased history" through his art. The subjects for his paintings aren’t from the era when they happened.

“The faces that I depict are always someone that I know, someone that I have a personal connection with, whether it’s friends or family” he said.

To get a realistic image, Valdez went to extremes. He rigged a noose, and then a bodybuilder assistant would, one-by-one, hoist these modern-dressed models by their necks as he took pictures.

“I would photograph as quick as I could, and then he would release them, and catch a breath, and repeat until I found the photo that I needed."

The result is a series of paintings of contemporary young people seemingly suspended in air. The noose isn’t shown, and they’re imposed over a white background.    

“Is this kind of a slap in the face of those who come see it?” I asked him.

“Not at all, no way. We are all connected," Valdez said. "In the end, this is what remains. This is what’s most important.”

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii