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Driven To Distraction

With a '53 truck as his canvas, artist Vincent Valdez set out to tell the story of Chavez Ravine. Easier said than done.

September 16, 2007|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

VINCENT VALDEZ thought it should be simple enough. The job: Retelling the nasty land-grab saga of Chavez Ravine, with all its vivid twists and turns, in all of its lurid hues. The story was shot through with themes that the young artist often revisited in his work: class and race, haves and have-nots, history and hearsay. The only significant twist in this project was that instead of a using a standard canvas, he'd be layering the narrative onto a truck.

To be precise, it wasn't just any truck but a custom-built, lowrider ice cream truck -- a commission from Ry Cooder intended to help promote Cooder's 2005 album, "Chavez Ravine." It was to be, literally, a vehicle for keeping the story alive and vivid. A way not to forget.

Valdez has seen how easily the forgetting happens; how in the absence of hard facts there's an impulse to invent or embellish -- to fill in the gaps. Holes open up in the timeline and new stories rush in, overtaking the truth. For him, art's always been a way of guarding against erasure, setting the record straight.

Until the truck, he thought of the cycle -- erase/revise/restore -- as something removed from him. But recently he's had a close-up view of just how, and how quickly, history can rewrite itself.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Chavez Ravine: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about a project by artist Vincent Valdez that chronicles the history of Chavez Ravine said that the Mexican American, working-class neighborhood was plowed away to make room for Dodger Stadium. Most of the neighborhood's residents had already been removed, and many of the buildings leveled, for a public housing project that was never built. The remainder were cleared for the stadium.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 23, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Chavez Ravine: An Arts & Music article last Sunday about a project by artist Vincent Valdez that chronicles the history of Chavez Ravine said that the Mexican American, working-class neighborhood was plowed away to make room for Dodger Stadium. Most of the neighborhood's residents had been already been removed, and many of the buildings leveled, for a public housing project that was never built. The remainder were cleared for the stadium.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Chavez Ravine: An article in the Sept. 16 Arts & Music section about a project by artist Vincent Valdez chronicling the history of Chavez Ravine said that the Mexican American working-class neighborhood was plowed away to make room for Dodger Stadium. Most of the neighborhood's residents had already been removed, and many of the buildings leveled, for a public housing project that was never built. The remainder were cleared for the stadium.

His trajectory was white-hot when Cooder called. Valdez had made his first big splash in 2001 with a piece called "Kill the Pachuco Bastard!," a visually raucous painting reimagining the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. The work became one of more talked about centerpieces of a touring exhibition called "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," and Valdez, then 22, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, followed up with a solo exhibition at the McNay Museum in his home town of San Antonio. "Stations," a series of large-scale, epic charcoal drawings that cast Christ as a boxer and the crucifixion as a boxing match, has been touring since its debut in 2004.

As for Valdez himself, well, he fell off the map. Conjecture abounded, he says, reeling off the reports: "The local newspapers wrote, 'The pressure was too much,' that I 'fled town.' People were saying I had a breakdown. . . . Others said I had so much success that I was ready for the big time and I went to Los Angeles."

That was the only shred of truth -- the L.A. part. As for the rest, "They turned into all these little urban myths," he says on a recent August afternoon, standing in the very spot where he has spent much of the last 18 months. Not club crawling, lunching or networking but in a bare-bones 1,700-square-foot live/work studio in Boyle Heights not more than 5 feet away from the very thing that actually lured him to Los Angeles -- that truck, that all-consuming ice cream truck: El Chavez Ravine.

Veering off course

As Cooder envisioned it, the truck would chronicle the battle over Chavez Ravine, a hard-scrabble, mostly Mexican American, working-class neighborhood that was plowed away to make room for the sleek, state-of-art stadium that the Brooklyn Dodgers would come to call home. The evolution of the neighborhood, from 1949 to present day, would unspool along the panels of the truck. It seemed straightforward enough, Valdez says. "I told Ry six, eight months tops."

Now, nearly two years later, the truck still sits. Lurks really. And though Valdez says that he -- as of just a few weeks ago, "at 12:57 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 5th" to be exact -- is finally finished, the truck sits in his studio's center space; his few personal belongings remain pushed to the margins where he lives: a crate of LPs, a turntable, a laptop, a trumpet case and a few scattered books -- mostly photography and history.

Valdez would be the first to admit that he might have taken a wrong turn and disappeared into his creation. "I had no idea what I was in for," he says, arms folded, eyeing the crouching machine. Traced along its sloping doors, its curved fenders, is a winding, deeply rutted dirt road, a few wooden houses rising from it. There's a view of a 1940s downtown, then a sleepy neighborhood waking up, and later, faces familiar from the Chavez Ravine battle -- then-Dodgers President Walter O'Malley, former LAPD Chief William H. Parker. This day in the life of a neighborhood, a time-tripping panorama spanning 1949 to 1959, looks almost like an intricate tattoo, but in the glowing, concentrated hues of a Los Angeles sky in summer -- blood orange, violets, lipstick reds -- all of it done in oil paints on metal applied meticulously by brush, painted and repainted, layer upon layer.

Valdez points out tire tracks here, a disrupted house plant there, "all my little obsessions," which he knows, over time, became bigger and bigger. But each stroke, each erasure, each layer turned folly into actuality. He's still haunted by it, having dreams.

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