Vito Jesus Valdez
Giant bullets, dog-men mowing
by Laura Bien
A lion with a heart of steel wool, a rainstick torpedo, and a lawn mower dog-man appear in the Ann Arbor Art Center's show of exuberant works by Detroit multimedia artist and muralist Vito Jesus Valdez. The nine large, colorful paintings and five whimsical sculptures on display combine elements of abstract expressionism, urban street art, and art brut ("raw art"). Valdez's lion dominates the show.
Crafted of two-by-fours and brightly painted scrap wood, King of the Desert/
Queen of the Nile sits on its haunches two yards high, brandishing its arms in heraldic formality, like an ancient Egyptian figure. Glowing in crimson, cobalt, lavender, and curry-orange, the lion figure sports a tail of timber festooned with flat paintbrushes. More layered paintbrushes form a furry chest, where a snarl of paint-smeared steel wool marks its heart. The lurid vitality of this appealingly crude sculpture, which projects a feisty, even belligerent attitude, coaxes a smile from the viewer.
Nearby sits Torpedo Rainstick, a slender, copper-colored metal bullet, nearly a yard long, suspended vertically and point down on a horizontal rod that passes through it halfway down its length, supported on a wooden A-shaped frame. Surrounded by a ring two yards across made up of eighteen fist-size or double-fist-size stones, this interactive work invites the viewer to tilt the metal bullet in its frame. A racket of metallic rattles and bangs from stones inside the sculpture sounds as the coppery bullet is pulled back ninety degrees and then let go. Its interior stones clank and bang as the bullet rocks back and forth, finally coming to rest. The playfulness of a completely purposeless noisemaker is made even more enjoyable by the bright paint swirling over the wooden frame in splotches of primary colors.
Near the Art Center's front door, Dog Man Mowing offers a six-foot-tall dog-man constructed of scrap wood, wearily pushing an old junked lawn mower covered completely with drips and blobs of bright-colored paint. The dog-man, painted
in a mix of fluorescent and smokier, darker spray paints, once adorned a Detroit park, according to an Art Center staff member.
The exhibit also includes four joyous, multicolored abstract paintings from a series entitled Corazón de Agua Azul (pictured) and two bowling-ball-size metal assemblages. On a rough silvery metal base suggesting an obscure car part, the assemblages sport nails, rows of pennies and dimes, a railroad spike, small plumbing accessories, and other finds seemingly collected by a junkyard magpie.
In the Art Center's Gallery 2, on the second floor, appear about a dozen lively works on paper that range from notebook to poster size, resulting from Valdez's work with Detroit local youth. The downstairs and upstairs works are on display through Saturday, August 19.
[Review published August 2006]