You Are What You Read
I left my conversation with Amanda Valdez carrying with me a modest list of book recommendations ranging in subject from myths of the moon to a material history of the United States. That I had such a list came as no surprise, as I had frequently heard Valdez described in various articles as a “research-based artist.” Being a research-based artist, however, does not mean that she is a didactic artist, intent on teaching us something with her work. “I don’t want to give someone a message,” she says of her canvas-fabric hybrids. In fact, this is one of the reasons she tends towards working in abstraction, as it is a “more expansive language” that appeals to a wider variety of people. When figuration does appear in her canvases, it is usually in the form of a vessel, and while there are “gendered moments” in her work, her vessels are not meant to evoke the womb, but rather are a sign of Valdez’s fascination with the mysteries we all contain within ourselves. In this way even her figurative work is “expansive,” widening the definitions of our commonly held symbols.
She does something similar with her employment of craft. Valdez’s work consists of a collage of artistic techniques, ranging from quilting and embroidery to painting. The metaphor of craft is particularly fruitful, as its close engagement with material begs to explain more difficult abstract terms. (Individual threads weave an artistic narrative, disparate themes may be stitched together, and on and on.) It is not surprising that many, both critics and artists alike, can fall victim to the overuse of such easy stylistic devices, so when we encounter an artist such as Amanda Valdez, who uses craft as a way of expressing her voice, we might not blame her for that sort of reliance on meaning.
But, of course, she’s smarter than that. She relies on nothing but her vision for what her work can be, and it just so happens that incorporating craft is the best means to achieve that goal. Valdez’s history, which ends rather than begins with the application of craft techniques, proves that she is a fine artist. Craft predates capital-A Art, and it might seem that employing it in the fine art space of painting is loaded with implications. But her canvases do not hit us over the head with theory, history, or political morality, as the role craft plays in her work is to serve it as a whole. She uses embroidery, for example, as a means of mark-making, like a brush on canvas, “asserting it as a drawing material.” (This is, perhaps, why she doesn’t refer to herself as a textile artist, nor a painter, but rather simply as an artist.) As for the role of quilting in her work, it was in the final year of her undergrad at the Art Institute of Chicago, before she headed to New York to work towards her MFA at Hunter, that Valdez realized that sewing would prove to be a means to her desired end, though not an end in itself.
The way she ended up here is a story worth repeating, as it reveals the the way the artist manages her inspiration. Valdez emerged from her final critique at the Art Institute knowing she had to find a way to unite the abstract painted forms on her canvases, but not knowing how. She began playing around on a sewing machine, eventually stretching the quilted pieces she made as if they were a canvas. Once stretched, the seams in these pieces warped, appearing organic and human. By this point “everyone was trying to rush me to put paint in it,” the artist says. But she didn’t. “I knew that I needed to figure out how fabric could function in painting before I could put everything back in.” This restraint reveals something fundamental about Valdez and is the encapsulation of her approach to art making. In the instance of these canvases, she describes having to wait until the paint had “permission” to come back into the work.
Words like “permission,” which give the artist a sense of remove from her work, point to the mode of content permeation by which Valdez operates. By deciding consciously not to emulate an artist she admires or a technique she’s just studied, Valdez allows her intuition to speak. Upon reflecting on a quilted piece she had just completed at an artists’ residency she noticed that it was made in the log cabin pattern, a quilt block with a long history. The log cabin pattern traditionally has at its center a red square meant to symbolize the warm hearth at the center of a house. It was only when she consciously confronted what she had made that she realized the implications of the work’s content: she missed home. “Things come in and then they come out,” Valdez says. It doesn’t seem like she has control over when and what, but then again, it doesn’t seem like she would care to. “I don’t want the artists’ work I admire to end up in my work.” Valdez trusts that the work of those she admires, whether of artists or of writers, will make it into her work in less direct ways, as an enriched mind creates enriched work.
There is a distinct sense that her collaged painting-textile hybrids come from a history bigger than the artist, though identifying that specific history might be difficult. Perusing her bookshelf might help, but keep in mind that she is more interested in how things “bleed in” to her work than she is with any direct application of her studies. This does not, however, mean that Valdez is hands-off in her creative process. (She is not a surrealist!) “I’m responsible for what I ingest” as “it goes in and changes my own intuition and decision making.” The books she reads may act as a clue to what has been going on in her head, but I can tell you right now don’t expect to be able to make these works after flipping through a Valdez reading list––as with all great art, it is the unique filter of the artist’s mind that creates something worth looking at.
Here is an abbreviated reading list, courtesy of the artist:
Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things by George Kubler