It’s a sad fact that Vincent Valdez’s “The City” has a diminished power to shock in the America we know today. But the unsettling painting, unveiled this week at the Blanton Museum of Art, still provides an opportunity to pause, reflect and continue our country’s dialogue on race, hopefully from a place of greater honesty with ourselves.
Valdez’s groundbreaking work depicts about a dozen people shrouded in Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes, staring directly at the viewer. The oversized black-and-white painting evokes photos from decades ago — until you realize a grayscale image is the only way to render a nighttime scene illuminated by a torch and headlights.
A Klansman looking at the glowing screen of his smartphone, a large communications tower to the left and a newer model truck to the right tell you this is an image of present-day America.
That’s the emotional sucker punch of this courageous piece of art.
These people live with us today.
It was a provocative concept when Valdez began working on the painting in 2015. What Valdez couldn’t have anticipated when he started this work, though, were the real-life events over the next few years that would bring Americans face-to-face with the overt racism in our midst.
The images of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville last August with tiki torches and racist chants, feeling so emboldened they didn’t hide behind hoods.
The photos of a 91-year-old Mexican-American in Southern California who was viciously beaten this month by a black woman who yelled, “Go back to your country!” according to a witness.
The arrest of a man who traveled last year to New York to stab and kill a black man at random, with plans to murder other African-Americans over his anger about interracial relationships.
The ugly rhetoric from President Donald Trump, who reportedly described Haiti, El Salvador and African nations in private as “s-hole” countries, and who publicly equates immigrants arriving here illegally with violent criminals.
The alarming statistics showing a rise in hate crimes against African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims and gays, particularly in California, which has seen a double-digit increase in hate crimes in each of the past three years, after six years of declining numbers.
When the news provides such vivid pictures of racism in our cities today, how much more can a Klan painting say?
Actually, a lot.
The image in “The City” is rooted in personal experience: As a teenager, Valdez had a face-to-face encounter with a Grand Dragon when he unwittingly happened upon a Klan rally outside the Alamo. That Klan leader, like one partially visible figure in the painting, was unmasked.
“It was really important to see a little bit of that face, to say, like, ‘You’re watching us, but you’re being watched,’” Valdez told several hundred people gathered Tuesday evening at the Blanton Museum to learn about the painting. “We are becoming more aware of this.”
We see it. We’re staring back, unafraid.
One of the figures is clutching a notepad. Another is nursing a beer. Several are women with delicate hands and manicured nails. They’re strikingly ordinary. Then you notice a figure in the shadows holding an infant in a Pikachu outfit and a mini Klan hood, the baby’s pudgy fingers pointing at you.
Another emotional sucker punch.
It’s hard not to look at “The City” through the current prism of the Trump era. But it’s worth remembering Valdez conceived the work while our first African-American president was in office, at a time when buoyant talk of a post-racial America ignored the insidious, persistent strands of institutional racism. Among the themes on the artist’s mind: Mass incarceration. Police brutality. Economic segregation. A broken education system that disproportionately puts African-American and Latino students at disadvantages. Even the decisions on where parks, playgrounds and low-income housing are built.
Valdez hoped this confrontational image would serve as the mirror Americans needed to see.
“If there’s one thing that America in the 21st century has yet to come to terms with, it is the truth,” Valdez said. “We’re trapped between a myth of who we think we were and the reality of who we really are.”
I must admit, I didn’t see those themes of covert racism in my first viewing of “The City,” perhaps because in my mind, the Klan conjures images of brutal violence, not social neglect. They are different forms of evil, and Valdez’s painting shows us the easier one to recognize. But his work, accompanied by an array of educational materials at the Blanton, challenge us to think deeper.
Fifty or 100 years from now, “The City” will no longer be a mirror, but a window to the past. If the work is taken out of storage and put on display somewhere, what those future museum visitors see staring back at them — A familiar image? A relic of an ignorant era? — will depend on how we confront the hatred and disparities of today.