In the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11-Present, photography, painting, drawing, and video bring us face-to-face with those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show features the work of Ashley Gilbertson, Louie Palu, Stacy L. Pearsall, Emily Prince, Vincent Valdez and the late Tim Hetherington, who invite us to consider the effects of these prolonged and distant conflicts on the soldiers, their loved ones, and on American society.
As a co-curator, I worked with Vincent Valdez. Over almost two decades, Valdez’s work has taken the form of seductively detailed, often larger-than-life oil on canvas paintings and pastel drawings populated mainly by male figures rendered in a realist manner. Frequently his art explores the idea of masculinity and the struggles that young men face in society, from the trappings of traditional gender roles to historic legacies of oppression that live on in racial and ethnic profiling. Valdez’s body of work in The Face of Battle is perhaps his most intimate take on male identity.
Already as a child Valdez was fascinated with the tales of war by his grandfather and father, a World War II and Vietnam veteran respectively. Valdez would reproduce the imagery of warfare on TV, in history and comic books in his own drawings. In 2009, while working on a series of artworks on warfare through the ages, Valdez asked his lifelong friend, 2nd LT. John Holt, Jr. to sit for a portrait. Valdez was interested in war as an enduring phenomenon, but also in the “Unknown Soldier” as a masculine archetype of heroic sacrifice and unidentified casualty of war.
After Holt’s return from his first tour in Iraq, Valdez met with him to work on the portrait. Months later, at home, and before his second tour to Afghanistan, Holt lost his battle against Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through his suicide Holt came to embody the Unknown Soldier for Valdez. He had known that soldier and felt his loss.
Valdez finished the portrait John posthumously in 2012. It depicts his friend in the midst of battle, an explosion and billowing smoke behind him, his eyes focused on an ominous sight that is invisible to the viewer and that anticipates John’s demise. In the gallery Valdez occupies, Holt’s death is evoked in Black Flag, a folded flag painstakingly drawn in black lithographic crayon, and through several paintings from the series Excerpts for John picturing moments of his military burial. These are minimal paintings of simple black lines that seem to disappear into gray backgrounds like fading memories.
On the central wall, in the single-channel video Inicio, Valdez pays homage and bids farewell to his friend. The life-size projection shows Holt’s coffin draped in an American flag, floating through his native San Antonio to the soundtrack of the anti-war song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” sung by the Celtic punk band The Pogues. On its last tour through the city, his coffin passes by houses with quirky ornamentation, a graffiti for the Spurs basketball team, a taco joint with missing letters in its name, the Azteca Meat Market – presumably places the friends frequented together, in their Tejano city… The cut-and-paste aesthetic of the hovering casket is deliberate; it imitates the form and slow motion of the Chicano lowrider, a familiar and beloved icon of the neighborhood in which the friends were raised. At the end of the video John’s coffin arrives in front of his house, the song dissipates and gives way to the distinctive sound of a train horn in the distance.