Alberto Valdés: Selected Paintings, Blue Rain Gallery, 130-C Lincoln Ave., 505-954-9902; through Oct. 18
Alberto Valdés (1918-1998) spent most of his life in Los Angeles after moving from El Paso to the East L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights at a young age. Throughout his career he avoided publicly exhibiting or selling his work, which has only caught the public’s attention in the past few years. Heavily influenced by such early 20th-century modernists as Picasso and Rufino Tamayo, Valdés’ vision incorporated Primitivist and pre-Columbian imagery. When looking at the paintings on exhibit at Blue Rain Gallery, it’s difficult not to see his work in relation to these early modernist influences; it would fit alongside work by Tamayo and muralist Jorge González Camarena.
Valdés, however, is more properly evaluated in terms of the Chicano movement that began in L.A. in the late 1940s and continued into the 1970s, empowering Mexican American communities, primarily in the U.S. Southwest. West Coast artists have drawn more critical attention and prominence in recent years, particularly with the Getty Foundation’s multivenue Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, of which Valdés’ work was a part.
All of the paintings on display are from the 1990s. A number of distorted, abstract paintings dominate the selection, some of them dark and brooding self-portraits. What stands out in these and other paintings, most of them untitled, is Valdés’ bold, economic use of line, which manages to convey a sense of personality and emotion with the utmost simplicity. The vibrant, glowing colors in most of the portraits attract viewers but contrast with the somber faces. His paintings embody heaviness and lightness in equal measure. The faces in some work are etched faintly into the paint, adding a subtle, tactile appearance while retaining a quickly rendered, sketchlike feel. The faces are like silent witnesses, fading from memory but still lingering in the present, watching.
Another body of work makes somewhat more explicit references to Valdés’ Mexican heritage, exploring imagery that recalls pre-Columbian sculpture but also themes of the intermingling of religion and culture. The cross is a dominant image in several of these paintings, rendered as an organic part of the figurative imagery, while the figures themselves recall Aztec forms. The contours of these figures are refracted by his use of line. The gradations of color in these paintings suggest diffuse light with no discernible source. The glow emanates from the figures, lending them a supernatural — but strongly rooted, rather than ethereal — presence.
While its purview is limited to a single decade in the artist’s long career, the selection is compelling. Blue Rain may not be the venue for a full retrospective, which would be a welcome possibility, but even with this small showing, the gallery is taking a chance on featuring work by a largely unknown artist. Critical evaluation of his impact on other artists of his generation or more recent generations is difficult to gauge, as Valdés’ star is still emerging.