It's a haunting of the soul, and it starts with the shock of turning the corner to view Vincent Valdez's massive, panoramic oil painting of the Ku Klux Klan. The 13 adults and one klanbaby-in-training are staring out, as if interrupted by the viewer, creating a back-and-forth energy that's highly unsettling.
The City 1, part of "The Beginning is Near" (Part 1) exhibit, is a piece of art that should be on everybody's must-see list, not just for its excellence in execution, but because it continues to offer up secrets the longer the viewer gazes at the 74 inch by 360 inch four-panel painting.
We chose to “read” the scene from right to left, beginning with the arrival of a late-model Chevy pick-up truck – our first clue that we have not been transported back to the late 19th century era of the first Klan. The truck's headlights illuminate the remote country scene, with tire tracks in the dirt and a junkyard dog scavenging among the discarded beer cans, while in the background (and this clearly isn't sea-level Houston), we look down upon a city of lights.
One robed Klansman looks back at the truck, while a trio huddles together to whisper secrets as the senior member (his hood bears a cross and a tassel) puts his guiding arm around one confidante and, in his other hand, holds the party's banner flag.
We next encounter a lone elder member: he bears a sash embellished with a rose patch and, in his hands, there's the soft LED glow of his iPhone. It becomes clear that we've moved forward in time, past the pre-Civil Rights Movement era of the Klan into the hatred of today, reminding us that elitism and the exclusion of “others” remains interwoven in the fabric of our society.
Next up is a shocker: It's not just that this man's face is visible, but also that he clearly sees us, too. The American eagle on his hat and the sniper rifle slung over his shoulder hammer home the point that, now that we've seen his face, we might not get out alive.
Next to him is a couple, and we begin to recognize that all of the participants in this nighttime scene are white, of course, but also moneyed, as seen by the heavy dose of rings and jewelry on the men and women.
Making our way down the panel we find a family unit: mother, father, baby with anime plush doll and Bubba, the ne'er-do-well, pot-bellied brother-in-law interjecting his heil salute as he guzzles a Budweiser “America” beer. Baby seems wise for his young age, pointing his chubby little fingers out a la Uncle Sam, wordlessly expressing “I want you.”
Our journey comes to an end and we realize that the smoky ambiance to this nighttime vista is not just fog or dusk, but the smoke wafting off a burning torch. Keeping order is the esteemed secretary: she's earned the stripes on her sleeve and the compass rose patch on her sash as she keeps notes on her yellow-ruled notepad, perhaps charting the next attack?
The companion piece in the exhibit, a smaller panel titled The City II, shows an oil drum of smoldering torches against a backdrop of discarded mattresses and debris. The exhibit includes a newspaper with essays about the Ku Klux Klan in American art, and features interviews with the artist who drew inspiration from poet/performer Gil Scott-Heron and artist Philip Guston.
While Valdez isn't necessarily making a statement on the current race for the White House, which comes with a “let's rid America of illegal aliens” message, he also doesn't pull away from the association. He actually began painting the piece almost a year ago, and it's a fitting next chapter in his artistic career.
His 2013 exhibit, "The Strangest Fruit," explored those Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who became victims of mob justice on our nation's soil between 1848 and 1928. The series featured hanged men but, because the artist eliminated the nooses, the resulting images appeared to be of men suspended in mid-air, seemingly about to meet their maker.
"The Beginning is Near" (Part 1) continues through October 8 at David Shelton Gallery, 4411 Montrose, open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 713-393-7319, davidsheltongallery.com.