Tag Archives: Aldrin Valdez

ALDRIN VALDEZ [on] FELIPE BAEZA

Chicos. watercolor and collage on paper {2013} Felipe Baeza.

Chicos. watercolor and collage on paper {2013} Felipe Baeza.

ALDRIN VALDEZ (intro): Felipe Baeza’s art is beautiful and irreverent. He challenges people to think about the messy entanglements of religion, sexuality, and the ongoing legacy of colonialism and white supremacy. I think his art is powerful and necessary because it disrupts the status quo and reminds people of the daily violence that undocumented immigrants, queer people, and people of color experience. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to interview him for Uncompromising Tang and to share his art with people who might not already be familiar with his work.

ALDRIN VALDEZ: Can you talk about when and how you began making art? Is there a clear beginning for you?

FELIPE BAEZA: I was actually thinking about this the other day. From a very young age I was an obsessive object maker. I was constantly making things and that’s how I kept myself entertained. Throughout my childhood in Mexico I was fascinated with creating my own toys. I had a huge obsession with modeling clay. Right after my parents left for the US, I was around 7 years old and I do remember sheltering myself by creating objects and imaginary worlds with clay. Now that I look back at that, I realize that creating those objects was a way for me to cope with my parents’ departure, which at that time was really confusing. Creating things has always played a role in my life, but I never took it seriously in the sense that I wasn’t going to benefit from it or I didn’t imagine it being a profession. This has a lot do with my upbringing, coming from an immigrant family and growing up in a mostly Mexican working class community in Chicago where art was never part of the conversation.

But I do have to say that my time in Chicago was a turning point in my artistic development and understanding of what being an artist meant and that’s when I became an artist per se. It was right after 8th grade when I began taking all sorts of art classes at after-school programs. It’s in these moments that my interest in art became more serious and I became a young artist in my own understanding of what being an artist was.

Right around high school I was introduced to printmaking and since then I have been fascinated by its many techniques and history. My first pieces from high school mostly incorporated stencils and collage elements and these are elements that still show up in my work. It was bit of a struggle making art because I was very aware that I enjoyed and was very skilled at making things, but at same time it was hard for my parents to understand what I was doing. I think they thought it was a phase or something to keep me distracted from the streets. I do realize the last thing an immigrant family wants from their kids is for them to become an artist, especially because my family immigrated to this country to provide me a better quality of life and education. I am sure they imagined I would become some respectable professional like a lawyer or architect, which I find humorous.

Objeto de la Nueva España 3. woodcut with metallic powder on paper {2011} Felipe Baeza.

Objeto de la Nueva España 3. woodcut with metallic powder on paper {2011} Felipe Baeza.

AV: Has their understanding changed?

FB: My parents’ understanding of art and me being an artist has changed for sure. I have noticed that change more in my mom than in my dad. When I talk to them they ask about what projects I am doing or if I have any shows coming up. My mom loves my work and she has some of my pieces hanging around her house and even some of my very homoerotic prints. To me that has definitely been a change in their understanding of what I do and my work in general.

When I was in the process of applying to college they were both confused about my interest in art school and pursuing art as a profession. I do remember them being worried about my future and what I would get from art school. I mean I was also worried too but knew that there wasn’t anything else that I wanted to pursue but art. Even though they questioned my decision to pursue art, they were extremely supportive of me applying to college. I think they were just glad that I was pursuing education and was applying to colleges.

But because of my legal status, college seemed unimaginable to me. I’ve been undocumented since I came to this country. In many respects, my family’s experience mirrors the stories of many immigrants, especially those from Latin America: my parents fled poverty, corruption, and violence in hopes of providing their children with a better life. When we first arrived, we did not expect that our experience would resemble what we were trying to escape: as undocumented immigrants we had invisible lives and we lived in a low-income community plagued with a host of social and health problems. However, against many barriers, I managed to navigate the Chicago public school system, which led to a full ride at Cooper Union in New York City. If it weren’t for Cooper Union and the help from my parents I don’t think I would have gone to college or even left Chicago.

Post-Colonial Object of Desire 4. collage on handmade abaca {2014} Felipe Baeza.

Post-Colonial Object of Desire 4. collage on handmade abaca {2014} Felipe Baeza.

AV: How does being undocumented affect your life as a working artist?

FB: I have encountered a lot issues regarding my legal status and working as an artist. The main one would be working and sustaining myself first and then hopefully my art practice. The other issue would be the lack of resources. One of the problems that I’ve come across regularly is that a lot of art residencies require a legal status. I spent a lot of my time interning at various art institutions, not because I wanted to but because that was the only thing I was capable of doing without being asked about my legal situation. Luckily through interning, I came across amazing people who opened new doors for me. I’ve been living in the United States for over two decades. I’ve worked hard to access the limited resources available to us and it has taken a great deal of skill and learning to navigate systems that were not designed for low-income, undocumented immigrants to survive, let alone succeed in. Ultimately and against many barriers, I completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from Cooper Union.

Post-Colonial Object of Desire 5. collage on handmade abaca {2014} Felipe Baeza.

Post-Colonial Object of Desire 5. collage on handmade abaca {2014} Felipe Baeza.

If someone were to ask how I got here, I’d have many people to name, but I owe a majority of my accomplishments to my rooted connection to community organizing and community mobilization. For the past several years I have engaged in community organizing at the local, state, and national levels for different campaigns and organizations. LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights have been a priority of mine throughout these years. These grassroots movements have granted me the privilege of applying for a work permit after nineteen years, due to the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. As someone who has lived the majority of their life in underserved communities as an undocumented youth, I have experienced the process of removing myself from the shadows of fear, shame, and embarrassment that were constructed in me because of my immigration status and, at the same time, I was also able to do that for my queer identity. Developing my consciousness has helped me understand the injustices that are faced on a daily basis by the two communities I identify with. My experiences as a queer immigrant and my ability to navigate through unjust policies and inappropriate practices, which aim to keep people silent, are what drive my art practice.

Nuestra Virgen Penosa. photogravure on paper {2009} Felipe Baeza.

Nuestra Virgen Penosa. photogravure on paper {2009} Felipe Baeza.

AV: How would you describe your art process?

FB: It’s never been clear. Part of my process in making work is mostly taken up by investigation and not just information pertaining to what I am dealing with but also with materials and how I would go about executing each piece. I tend to put pieces off to the side for months and some even years and that’s how long some of them take to make sense and to be completed. I go back to pieces and not only do they make sense and speak  to me but I go about executing them and finishing them in a way that I wouldn’t have been capable of doing earlier. Time plays a huge role in my art practice. This also explains the fact that a lot of my work tends to look differently than what I expected and in some cases it even speaks to others issues that I wasn’t planning on dealing with. Most of the time my art practice is somewhat bittersweet. That’s what makes it interesting for me. I can’t imagine dealing with work or going about making something that was clear to me from the starting point. That would just be unnecessary and not enjoyable.

Fogata. woodblock, silkscreen and monoprint on varnished paper {2013} Felipe Baeza.

Fogata. woodblock, silkscreen and monoprint on varnished paper {2013} Felipe Baeza.

AV: I really like “bittersweet” as a description of an art practice! It speaks to having to give up some part of the work that might have become too precious. I think it’s interesting to consider this messy, wayward process in relation to the images you end up with because your imagery is so iconic. I’m curious how Catholic iconography has influenced your work. When I think about how your imagery affects me, I think of it as pushing me in a way that’s hard to articulate. Maybe it’s part “wow, Felipe is gonna get in trouble with some Catholic fundamentalists” and part “wow, I wonder how he created this and what kinds of materials he used to make these marks.” You create forms and symbols that people might see and use in the context of worship. In your work, they are objects that provoke by drawing people’s awareness to that context of worship. But then you twist them in ways that I think may be expected but there’s still a surprise, an element that can make a viewer uncomfortable. I think it has to do with how much people, by not questioning the ubiquity of these images, imbue them with power. What’s your relationship to Catholicism?

El dia que me convertí catolico. silkscreen with metallic powder on paper {2010} Felipe Baeza.

El dia que me convertí catolico. silkscreen with metallic powder on paper {2010} Felipe Baeza.

FB: I find it fascinating how my work affects you and glad that it makes you feel this way. As an artist, I would want all my pieces to convey that and get that type of reaction from people seeing my work. I do see that in some of my pieces there is this shock value that people tend to gravitate to and make sense of. That has to do a lot with my imagery. As you mentioned I tend to use a lot of religious and primarily Catholic imagery in my work. I can describe my relationship to Catholicism just like my art practice which is “bittersweet.” I grew up in an extremely religious family, Catholic on my dad’s side and Christian on my mom’s side. So I had my fair share with religion on both extremes. But at a young age I always gravitated towards Catholicism. I have always been mesmerized and interested by Catholicism, the imagery and how dramatic and bloody everything is. If you look at the imagery of Catholicism in Spain and then look at the imagery of Catholicism in colonized lands they are extremely different. The Catholic imagery in colonized lands tends to portray a lot of suffering and a lot more blood and as we know figures tend to be more brown.

As a kid I enjoyed going to church and to me seeing the spectacle that processions tend to be. In my growing up process I learned the many horrors that come with religion and its history and also the imbedded hate towards me and my queerness. I am no longer an observant but culturally I can say am still very Catholic. This is where my bittersweet relationship comes into place: I enjoy the fable, imagery, and spectacle of it but I am repulsed by its power. There was a series of projects that I did a while ago that investigated the abuse of power by the Catholic Church, which excludes and condemns homosexuality. We have been witnesses for centuries of the abuse of power based on the Bible. The Catholic Church has taken the Bible as an oppressing tool for centuries to discriminate and exclude various groups; it’s been used to justify slavery, predestined women to a second-class status, and condemned homosexuality. This institution was founded for the worship of men and is based on fear and machismo and for the advancement of men. Finally, I find it quite problematic to have faith and believe in an institution like the Catholic Church.

AV: Hmmm…Catholic imagery in colonized lands portraying more suffering and are bloodier than the Catholic imagery in Spain? That’s really interesting. It’s making me think back to this figure of Christ in the Philippines. It’s a Christ that is very dark-skinned kneeling and carrying a cross. Like you, I was also raised in a Catholic community. I’m very critical of it now, but I also still love the spectacle of it. I love the processions and even when Christ and the saints are portrayed as suffering figures, they are decked out in regal outfits with gold-tinted ruffles lining their capes for example. Haute-couture suffering! Those figures, like the Santo Niño, are also very pretty and sometimes they appear androgynous. I responded to the Santo Niño figures in the Philippines as though they were very cute, chubby fairy godmother-like characters. I didn’t really think of them as younger boy versions of the same Jesus Christ that I’d see on the crucifix. This brings me back to the imagery in your work, where you flesh out the implicit or silenced sexuality in these Catholic images. One great example of this is the collage with two figures in flames looking up admiringly at the crucifix while a baby angel hovers above catching the blood that’s squirting from the body of Christ. It’s a ridiculous image to begin with, but then you’ve cut out the crucifix and underneath you glued an image of one guy playing with – presumably – another guy’s ass. What has been the response to your work from institutions that you’ve shown your art to (in applying for residencies or for shows, for example) and from the public?

Sufres Porque Quieres. 4" x 6" collage {2012} Felipe Baeza.

Sufres Porque Quieres. 4″ x 6″ collage {2012} Felipe Baeza.

FB: In my earlier work I was dealing more with religious imagery and also a lot of homoerotic imagery. This was around the same time when I was at Cooper Union. There wasn’t much dialogue during critiques and, at that point in my art practice, dialogue and critique were crucial to my work. I found my time at Cooper a bit frustrating for that reason. I felt that I was expected to make a certain type of work and for them it made sense that I was dealing with identity issues. I was put in this “Latino artist” box. But despite all of the expectations and lack of dialogue, I found a few professors who played an important role in my development as an artist.

In Cooper Union, I came across a repetitive reaction towards my work. I am actually surprised it didn’t happen earlier. In my junior year, I showed some prints during the End of the Year show and someone reported my work to a Catholic organization. From there it blew up. It became a huge ordeal, from people sending me threats to people asking the administration to remove my work.

AV: Wow, it’s terrible that there were organizations not affiliated with the school coming in and policing art being made by its students. But that shouldn’t be surprising because religious institutions have had a lot of influence on what kind of art can be shown.

FB: The administration at the school handled it pretty well and decided to display my work for the duration of the show. For me this was something that I knew I would be confronting with my work. The same situation happened during my thesis show. In that case, the administration wasn’t on my side. I had people calling the school to shut down the show and threatening to protest. I remember that there was also construction happening in the space where I was showing and even the construction workers threatened to walk out if the show was going up, which they did. This was a very dramatic and amusing experience and also proved to me how powerful art can be and how it can affect people in so many ways. The show still went up and, as I expected, it caused an uproar. I am very conscious about how my work can be seen and some earlier pieces can be seen as one-liners and those were the pieces that got attention.

I feel that a lot spaces have an issue with showing my work and it surprises me that even at this moment in time we have to deal with censorship. This, in a way, has made me self-conscious about what I am able to submit when applying for grants or residencies. Most of the time you are dealing with non-profits that depend on donors and I feel that plays a role in what they will show and what they will not show, which may not be a print of a guy with a cross in his anus. So definitely the response from institutions has been mixed and they tend to deal and show only the “safe” pieces.

F is for Fogata. collage with silkscreen and monoprint on varnished paper {2014} Felipe Baeza.

F is for Fogata. collage with silkscreen and monoprint on varnished paper {2014} Felipe Baeza.

AV: You’re a printmaker and, as you said, you began making prints in high school. How do you see the relationship of printmaking to the content of your work?

FB: Yeah, as I mentioned I began experimenting with printmaking back in high school, but it wasn’t until college that I immersed myself in the medium. I was for sure wanting to focus on sculpture and that was what I was primarily doing before college. With this in mind, at Cooper Union I took some sculpture studios courses and I developed such an animosity towards it. A lot of it had to do with the way it was taught and how much bullshit and macho attitude surrounded it.

I remember taking a silkscreen class and that’s where it all began. I feel like printmaking has been seen as inferior practice in the art world and a proletarian tool. In a sense this was what attracted me to the process. I was knowledgeable about its history in social engagement in Mexico and how it was seen as a radical tool for social change. Printmaking made more sense for the type of work I wanted to make, and this not only became clear because of the different processes but also because of the early history of printmaking. Using printmaking, I recreated religious imagery using woodcut and intaglio. I’ve mimicked the same process of documentation through printmaking originally used by the Catholic Church to disseminate their religious ideas. Using these same tools, my work proposed a critique of religious institutions and social control.

Desapareces II. etching with chine-collé {2012} Felipe Baeza.

Desapareces II. etching with chine-collé {2012} Felipe Baeza.

AV: Which artists would you consider as being very influential to you?

FB: I knew this question was going to come up! This is constantly changing and I’ll probably be embarrassed about the artists I was interested in during high school, who were most likely white and male. This has a lot to do with the fact that the representation and exposure of artists of color are minimal. We are under-represented. But there were a few artists whose work spoke to my young queer brown self. I was exposed to mostly to white and male artists working primarily in printmaking until Elizabeth Catlett made an appearance in my high school years. She made a huge impact on me not only because of her work, but because she was a person of color and one of the first artists I came across. What spoke to me about her work was how she depicts the Black experience and how politically charged her work is.

During that same time I came across Kerry James Marshall’s work, which to this day still has an effect on me. Just like Catlett’s, Marshall’s work deals with Black experience and identity. I was probably around fourteen or fifteen when I came across his work and at that time, like many other teenagers, I was dealing with my queerness and my legal status and the experience of feeling invisible and ashamed. I saw those themes in Marshall’s work. I became interested in how he dealt with themes of invisibility and visibility within the Black experience.

Another artist that I also came across at that time and that I consider influential to me has to be Nahum Zenil. Zenil’s work made a great impact on me because he was the first artist that I had encountered whose work deals with queerness and religion very explicitly. I remember printing his images and hiding them in fear that my parents would find them.

There are obviously more artists that influence me but these three were really influential to me at a young age. I think that the works of the current artists that I have been looking at and admiring are completely different from the work I make. I am very fond of socially engaged work and performance art that deal with identity, gender, and race. Artists like Regina José Galindo, Ana Mendieta, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carlos Motta. I’ve also been looking at and admiring the work of younger artists who use collage and printmaking methods in their work such as Wangechi Mutu, Firelei Baez, Yashua Klos, and Tschabalala Self.

Ese de Rojo. monoprint with hand embroidery on paper {2011}  Felipe Baeza.

Ese de Rojo. monoprint with hand embroidery on paper {2011} Felipe Baeza.

AV: What are you currently working on?

FB: Forever figuring it out! I am taking a bit of a hiatus from printmaking, not entirely. I think I’ve gotten too comfortable with the medium and sometimes it’s not a process that makes sense to what I want to work with. I’ve been making collage work for a while now and collages were actually my studies of finished pieces and I rarely showed them. I’ve been working on small collages that have been dealing with the recurring theme of reversal ethnography and hybridity using porn and pre-Columbian imagery. I’m also doing some mixed-media work on paper incorporating printmaking dealing with hybridity and identity inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. So I’ll expect you to come over soon once I am ready to show them!

Untitiled (AIDS). monoprint with hand embroidery on paper {2011} Felipe Baeza.

Untitiled (AIDS). monoprint with hand embroidery on paper {2011} Felipe Baeza.

AV: I can’t wait!

Queria Ser Sirena Pero Termino Siendo Pulpo. monoprint with collage {2013} Felipe Baeza.

Queria Ser Sirena Pero Termino Siendo Pulpo. monoprint with collage
{2013} Felipe Baeza.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

FELIPE BAEZA: was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Baeza received his BFA from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. His work has been exhibited in various group shows around the country including New York’s The New School, the International Print Center New York, and Meyerson Hall Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the recipient of the Michael S. Vivo Prize for Drawing and previous residencies at the Lower East Side Printshop and at The Anderson Ranch Art Center.

ALDRIN VALDEZ: is a queer Filipino artist and writer living and working in Brooklyn. They studied at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts and was a 2011-12 Queer/Art/Mentorship fellow.

BUZZ SLUTZKY [on] ALDRIN VALDEZ

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From Storms, mixed-media works on paper, family photographs, and poem. {2013-2014} Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

BUZZ SLUTZKY: Hey Aldrin! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview over email. I’ve been a fan of your work for as long as I’ve known you, and it’s fun to see someone use writing and painting and photography so fluidly.

ALDRIN VALDEZ: Hi Buzz! Thank you so much. I’m so grateful for your support! It’s funny that you say I use writing, painting, and photography so fluidly. I’ve been struggling with the pressure to do just one thing or to present my work in one coherent form so I often feel like I’m stumbling through those mediums or that I should focus on one form. But I can’t just do one thing because I need all of these different mediums to communicate and express my ideas.

BS: What’s been the biggest change in your work over time? Why did that change take place?

AV: In the last few years, I’ve become more specific and articulate about what I want to explore through my art: Filipin@ identity, queerness, and memory. And I think these are themes I’ve been exploring for a long time but now I’m learning to be less fearful in claiming them. I’ve been thinking about compassion for oneself. What does it mean to have compassion for yourself? As an immigrant, as a Filipino, as a queer person who’s experienced racism and homophobia and internalized those oppressive systems, it’s been difficult to have compassion for myself. I’ve experienced a lot of silencing. It’s been a struggle. And it’s complicated because all throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I wanted – like many of my peers and especially as an immigrant who’s had to assimilate and seek the approval of my white teachers to survive – to fit into this narrative of whiteness and measure my validity based on white standards, to try to see myself and my work through a Euro-American history. I took part in my own silencing and erasure, which extends to the time before I came to the United States. The Philippines is a country that has been colonized and brutally oppressed by the United States and by Spain. I think silence and complicity to white supremacist structures have become tangled with the way many Filipin@s view themselves and their place in the world. Most often we don’t want to acknowledge that reality or don’t want to challenge it because we are traumatized. Many Filipin@s work in other countries and their residencies in those countries are conditional. I’ve always felt, living here in the U.S., that at any minute I can be deported, even with my permanent resident status.

I think a big part of this change in my work has to do with community support. I’m fortunate to be part of communities made up of mostly people of color, queers, and trans folks. Seeing them and their art has been significant because I’m learning that there’s room for my story, too. And it’s a messy, non-linear story so I’m going to use the various forms of media that I’m attracted to and that means using writing, painting, photography, performance, etc.

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Installation view of Untitled in Don’t Worry What Happens Happens Mostly Without You, curated by Kris Nuzzi; mixed media works on paper and family photographs. {2012} Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

BS: Can you talk a little bit about your name, pronouns, and identity? And maybe how your work frames some of that information?

AV: I was named after the astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (yes, readers: there is a beautiful coincidence with my name and Buzz’s). “Aldrin” has Old English origins and is usually used as a surname. In the Philippines, it’s a common first name. My last name is Valdez, which is a Spanish surname. So my name, like the names of many Filipin@s, contains the complicated history of colonialism and imperialism by Spain and the United States. And there’s a lot there to look into, just in that name. I’m beginning to see my art as a way to decolonize myself. What does that mean, to decolonize? Right now for me it means remembering as a way of healing from trauma. And I’m remembering a lot, which is to say: I’m sharing a lot and opening up about many things publicly. It’s overwhelming sometimes. I’m learning some histories for the first time and that process brings up feelings of shame, but then that provides an opportunity to ask questions. Why, for instance, am I learning these histories for the first time? I’m going back and kind of piecing myself together. I want to feel whole and I want to be in this body and not feel I should have another body or deny the history of this body (even though sometimes I do want that because it’s exhausting having to constantly assert your history to be recognized by straight, white folks). I want compassion for myself. I’ve been asking people to say my name the way it is pronounced in Tagalog, which is with an “a” like in “alive” and an “i” like in “seen.” AHL-DREEN. I wrote a kind of announcement that you can find here. For the past 20 years in the US, I’ve been going by the “Edwin Buzz Aldrin” pronunciation and I never corrected people. It’s emblematic of a larger erasure.

Gender is so complicated. I’m thinking of my gender as related to my being Filipino, so what I’m learning is that there’s a racial aspect to gender. I’ve been thinking about the Tagalog word “bakla” and defending it as a word that can’t be translated into English so that it becomes merely a Tagalog version of “faggot” or “gay,” though certainly it can encompass those meanings. I say “defending” because many times I’ve experienced Americans referring to the word as a Western, English equivalent of “gay.” Bakla is a gender on its own. It has its own history and its own contexts. Looking at this word and using it to describe my experiences with gender and sexuality helps me look at the homophobia, racism, and misogyny I’ve internalized.

For me thinking about gender is a way of asking questions about my relationships to different power structures and communities. Tagalog doesn’t have gendered pronouns. We use “sila” and “siya” – translatable as “they” or “them” – to refer to people in the singular and plural. Yet in the Philippines, gender binaries are so entrenched. Sometimes I’m not really sure how to think about and what to think of my gender. This not knowing is my response to outside pressures of having to concretely define it. I’ve been asking people to refer to me with different English pronouns. I think we should all examine how each of us relates to these gendered systems and to think critically about them.

Because I’m experiencing so much and expressing so much that has been silenced and repressed for so long, my art lately has felt like an urgent rant. I mean it is an urgent rant. I want people to see and hear me in ways that I wasn’t allowed and (internalizing that) didn’t allow myself to show. Maybe my art will always be an urgent rant in this society where brown queer immigrant people like me are silenced.

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DINUGUAN, oil, ink, collage, and colored pencil on paper, 11 x 15 in. {2013} Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

BS: I get this question a lot, and never know the answer: how do you decide what materials to use? But I’ll add: What does each medium bring to the questions you’re asking in your work?

AV: Very intuitively. I collage a lot. I need something to start me off when I’m making an image. I’ve been using a lot of cutouts from comic books and using lots of patterns. I have a very strong visual memory. I don’t mean that I can memorize an image and reproduce it exactly. Rather: images stay with me. They have a powerful effect on me. Almost tactile. Haptic. I love patterns, especially floral patterns. And it should have been so obvious to me where this love of floral patterns was coming from – but again because of the shame mechanism I didn’t want to claim it: my grandmother would wear these duster dresses with floral prints. Even the more formal dresses she would wear had flowers. I remember one dress she wore was this beautiful purple and black number and I remember her dancing in this dress at my sister’s debut. This love of patterns isn’t only in my drawings and paintings. I love wearing patterns, too.

I often include text in my visual work. Sometimes this text is a piece I wrote or words that have stayed with me from a poem or story I read. I love books. I love how tactile they are, and that love for books, including comic books, is reflected in my work. As a painter, I don’t often work on canvas. It’s not my main surface or material. Canvas has a political content that doesn’t often work for me. So I choose to work mainly on paper. Paper I can cut and join with another element. This is related to my having varied experiences through the marginalized identities I contain. So when someone is telling me I should work big and on canvas: why? Are you trying to tell me it would legitimize my work? It would make it more valid? These material concerns involve race, ability, and class. Canvas is expensive. And it takes work to construct and prepare and to store! This doesn’t mean that I don’t ever work with canvas. Right now, I’m going back into small paintings that I’ve put away and that I’m now reconsidering. Their smallness is significant to me and I want to look at them alongside the works-on-paper I’ve been making. If you’re a painting teacher you should really consider why you’re telling your students to work only on canvas and encourage them to think about the significance of the materials they’re using.

BS: What are some challenges you face in terms of audience and art community?

AV: I’ve internalized oppressive systems so I’m learning that some of the limits I’m experiencing are self-imposed. What does that mean when it comes to audience and art community? I’ve had this stupid notion that because I’m making multi-media works dealing with complicated issues of race, gender, and sexuality, the communities I’m a part of won’t understand or won’t care what I’m doing. That’s so fucked up because I’m denying vital parts of myself connection and visibility and also assuming that my friends are not capable of understanding and supporting me. That notion comes from a real place. I have been in communities that ignored me and dismissed my work – communities that adhere to white, straight standards – but I don’t have to pay attention to those people anymore.

BS: What is the role of biography and personal narrative in your work?

AV: I’m finding this a tough question to answer. Immediately my response was: well, biography and personal narrative is my work, but I feel like there’s more to that. I think the difficulty has to do with fear that my biographical and narrative work is too personal, so it isn’t valid, it’s not art, it’s not relevant to a larger audience. Geez, that censorious effect of oppressive systems is deep in me. But that’s what I’m doing: I’m telling my story and it’s imperative that I tell it. I need to connect my experiences to history.

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Ellis Island (Self-Portrait), family photograph. {1995/2014} Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

BS: How do you navigate language as a multilingual writer?

AV: My relationship to English will always be one of ESL, even if now the reality is that I’m more fluent in English than I am in Tagalog. But what does that mean – to be more fluent in English than in the first verbal language I learned and grew up speaking? A lot of things point to my status here as a Filipino immigrant and to the history between the U.S. and the Philippines – especially moving through languages. That’s very present in how I approach writing.

Being ESL has made me sensitive to language as a series of sounds. I like learning etymology and tracing movements through the history of words. And LOL part of this learning and loving etymology came from me being embarrassed by my misuse of words or using them out of context. There are so many American English expressions that I’ve had to pause from using and think about and ask what does that actually mean and why am I using it?

BS: What’s the best advice an art mentor has ever given you?

AV: I’ve been privileged to have such great art mentors in my life and one of those mentors is the painter Deborah Kass, whom I worked with through Queer/Art/Mentorship. Q/A/M is a fellowship organized by Lily Binns and Ira Sachs. The program pairs queer-identified emerging artists with more established queer artists and each mentor/mentee team works together for a year on a project the mentee has proposed. It’s also an opportunity to meet and connect with other artists working in a different field. So it’s also a community that provides support and feedback amongst the mentees.

During one of our monthly meetings, Deb was looking at my drawings and said, “You can afford to be more literal in your work.” I’ve interpreted that advice on several levels as an image maker. For me, it has to do with being more out in my work as a queer person, as an immigrant, as a Filipino.

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and the several years, oil, ink, collage, and colored pencil on paper, 11 x 15 in. {2013} Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

Lately I’ve been thinking of my grandmother’s mentorship. My grandmother raised me – she wasn’t an artist, but she was my greatest mentor. I remember I was trying to draw fish like how this person was drawing it on a television program I was watching at the time. And I couldn’t do it. I was so frustrated. My fish didn’t look like the fish on television. And my grandmother was so supportive. She asked me if she should get more paper at the store. This was in Manila. She was going to go run to the store to buy paper! I have terrible guilt over that, because she worked so much to support a huge family that included all of her children (my father was the oldest of over 10 children, some of whom didn’t live to be teenagers) and her many, many grandchildren. Sometimes she’d take in runaway kids. And there I was being mean to her! We didn’t have much and still she’d run and get me paper. That afternoon, I remember being incredibly frustrated and not knowing what to do with that frustration. And rather than coddle me by telling me my drawing looked fine, my grandmother stood there, frozen. I wouldn’t accept her offer of more paper because I was throwing a tantrum on the floor and I was more involved in not being able to do something than in fixing it. I think she really didn’t know how to help me beyond what she already offered.

This memory is very significant for me because it makes me see how my grandmother was showing me that she couldn’t help me, that sometimes people, even the ones you love, cannot help you and that maybe the best thing they can do for you is to give you the space to ride out that frustration, or sadness, or another seemingly unbearable feeling you might have. That it’s your perception of yourself and your art that you have to work on and only you can really do that for yourself. There are real borders, real oppressive systems telling you that you are not allowed or not capable of doing something and then there are the borders you’ve internalized. And the latter you have more agency over; you can change them.

BS: What’s your relationship to AIDS? How does HIV/AIDS impact your approach to desire in your work?

AV: There are many tangled questions within those two questions. But first and foremost, I think my relationship to HIV and AIDS is the body. Missing bodies and my awareness of my body as a dick-sucking, ass-fucking, cum-loving queer with a lot of yearning and loneliness. Many of the artists I’ve come to love and from whom I continue to learn are dead because of AIDS, so in coming to learn about them, I also came to learn more about AIDS. But piecemeal. Like looking at a pattern through the wrong viewing tool and not seeing the connections. So here is an example of a situation in which the history left out of your classroom history books and in the mainstream media becomes an insidious message that you, as a queer person, your history doesn’t matter. Your reality doesn’t’ matter. In fact, because it’s not in the books, it’s not on TV, it doesn’t exist. Or if it is in the books or on TV, it is almost always through the lens of hetero whiteness. Why are you feeling so lonely, why are you angry at yourself and ashamed of your sexuality? Why do you think you’ll catch something each time you have sex? And if you do, why does it feel like you’re a monster or a sexually depraved criminal who has to confess something each time you want to hold another body?

The things I’m questioning in my work have to do with guilt, shame, and desire. With the policing of desire. So I’m dealing with oppressive systems like colonialism, homophobia, and racism. With the intergenerational trauma that is the ongoing legacy of those systems. I’m thankful that there are organizations like Visual AIDSQueerocracy, and Queer/Art/Mentorship – because these communities offer spaces where you can learn those histories that have been erased from the classroom and form connections between what you’re experiencing and larger realities and ongoing histories. You’re not alone. You’re connected.

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lagot ka faggot, typewritten text, oil, ink, colored pencil, and collage on paper, 11 x 15 in. {2013-2014} Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

BS: Who are some artists that have influenced you? Why?

AV: David Wojnarowicz: when I read Close to the Knives and The Waterfront Journals, I’m so aware of his desire, his rage, his trauma, and how these connect him to history and to other people. He loved to look and his writing really is a powerful way of archiving his desires and for us as readers, we’re witnessing that desire unfold and maybe we’re also feeling that desire. The first time I read DW’s writing and saw his work, it was a shock to my system. There were so many things coming together because all of a sudden my experiences, though different from his, were being reflected in his representation of queerness, his sexuality, of his fears and desires. I tried to see myself and learned from painters like de Kooning, Matisse, Picasso, etc. What do these artists have in common? They are part of a canon, the church of white hetero art that you need to strive for and measure your success against. I like their paintings, but it was always like I was trying to wedge my awkward self into their narratives. DW’s work is so raw and messed up. He was deliberately messing things up, messing up aesthetics and standards. So that really influenced me because it was an encouragement to go be myself in the ways that fit my history and my desires.

In my collages and drawings: Paul Thek, Amy Sillman, Henry Darger, Nicole Eisenman. Artists, who like DW, are/were juggling written and visual languages. And often dealing with ineffable experiences. With fantastic, internal worlds. Rifts and collisions between image and word.

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Detail of lagot ka faggot. Courtesy of Aldrin Valdez.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of R. Zamora Linmark’s poetry and fiction. He’s like me, a queer Filipino. That’s HUGE! In my almost sixteen years of going up the education ladder in the U.S., not once did I encounter works by a Filipino writer. “Encounter” is so passive. And that’s the ugly truth. I was so passive. I didn’t know to demand and how to demand culture that reflected my own experiences. RZL’s work has led me to Jessica Hagedorn’s writing and to Lino Brocka’s films. These are Filipino artists who have similar concerns with language and history, similar questions about their lives as queer people taking on their inherited tradition – their trauma – with Catholicism, colonialism, and the diaspora – as I do. It’s exciting to experience their work. It makes me feel alive and valid.

Sarah Schulman. Like DW’s work, her writing deals with the gnarled contradictions and difficult truths of being alive, being with people, being queer – experiences and histories that get flattened by mainstream representation if not completely erased. Reading her books has helped me to articulate and give language to my own trauma. Maybe that’s a lot of pressure to put on an artist and their work, but her books — especially Ties That Bind and The Child –have been incredibly helpful and are very important to me because they’re complicated and uncomfortable. They make you have to sit there and own up to your secondhand beliefs and ask questions. I think the art world is full of people who are careerists and careerism disconnects you from the bodily urgency of being alive and being mortal because you’re constantly having to climb this ladder of whiteness to validate yourself and competing with others to do that. Sarah’s work reminds me in generous, compassionate terms, that I have a responsibility to other people. I have an effect on other people.

BS: Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers, Aldrin! Keep making work!!

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

BUZZ SLUTZKY is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and curator. Buzz works in a range of media, particularly in drawing, video, and performance. They are a former Curator of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, and currently work as a student and Teaching Assistant in the Parsons MFA Fine Arts program.

ALDRIN VALDEZ is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn. Aldrin studied at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts and was a 2011-12 Queer/Art/Mentorship fellow.