The words “yo no soy Romantica,” or “I am not romantic,” are written in large orange cursive letters on a flat blue background; the text is partially hidden by the green cactus planted in a bright pink pot in the foreground of Anna Valdez’s illustration Yo No Soy Romantica (2013). Whether or not the artist intended to indicate the cactus as the speaker of these words is unclear. Perhaps it’s entirely purposeful and the cactus needs to assert that it is not romantic, seeming to say, “and would you please stop making me out to be?” Or maybe it’s the image, with its eye-straining colors, that isn’t romantic, or perhaps the way the words are written.
No matter what (or who) the words reference, the artist is pointing to a code as old as painting itself: the use of objects as symbols for ideas, emotions, and people. In the case of Yo No Soy Romantica, the cactus portrays its accrued cultural associations and meanings—western desert spiritualism, American cool, tangible exoticism, and so on. Anna Valdez cleverly uses subject and object to point critically and humorously to the overuse of cacti as a romantic symbol of cool—one among many signs—on Instagram and Facebook, and in fashion and lifestyle magazines. Valdez continues the tradition of Dutch still-life painters from the 16th century to engage objects as symbols and to point to specific motifs that contemporary consumer and lifestyle culture have adapted to signify individual style and measure of success.
Her treatment of the cactus and other objects in her still-life paintings also point to an important aspect of Valdez’s biography, a theme that comes up throughout her body of artwork. In an interview done as part of a series titled 365 Artists 365 Days, Valdez said: “I can remember 90% of the time, upon meeting someone new, they would ask me, ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ I was always embarrassed when I had to admit that I was just American with Spanish and Basque heritage, and unable to provide context to what that meant. Mostly everyone thought I was Latina, because of my last name and slightly dark complexion, and they expected me to act as such.” In her paintings, Valdez mirrors her own experience of mistaken ethnicity by placing objects in distinct groups that lend each other cultural meanings that may not otherwise be associated with each as individuals.
Valdez lists her studies in anthropology and her experiences growing up in a Sacramento suburb as key features in her artwork. This lends another interesting layer to her work, as Valdez is very clearly working with contemporary motifs and not with ethnography or past societies, as traditional anthropology would suggest. If we keep this in mind when looking at the composition of her still-life paintings Cultivating Domesticity (2013) and We Like This Poetry and Music (2014), the paintings become portrayals of what people—whoever we imagine these objects to belong to—desire to project to the world. The plants and fabrics, the carefully placed postcard of what must be a Cézanne painting and the dress hung almost sloppily on a chair, the Jerry Garcia record and book of poetry by Lorca are the objects that define a person—a sense of individuality wrought through the personalization of goods and aesthetic taste. Valdez is ostensibly creating her own anthropology of the present, of her own generation, one born into neoliberal capitalism and post Freudian reflection, a time dominated by the idea of the self as a constantly changing and personally marketable commodity, largely portrayed through platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. These paintings, as well as another series including Mad Women-ish (2012) and Heirloom (2013), are about capturing the spirit of the ever-evolving performance of the self.
In Mad Women-ish and Heirloom, the face, not the objects, becomes the conduit through which personhood is created. With a Francis Bacon-like coloration and distortion, Valdez gives us a moment to pause and reflect on why these women—always women in her portraits—have no faces; why their faces have become colorful, flat, abstract surfaces.
In Dreamscape (2012), she steps dramatically away from the critique of contemporary self-symbolism, with a composition not unlike Marsden Hartley’s paintings of Mount Katahdin, which are after Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series. With a surreal color scheme, unclear boundaries between sea, land, and sky, and a richly patterned, almost textile-like composition, Anna Valdez draws us into a pleasantly unexpected and unimaginable atmosphere—thematically so unlike her other works, yet stylistically coherent.
What unites Valdez’s work throughout is her consistent use of humor and attention to details, both of which draw the viewer in. More pointedly, throughout her work—paintings, drawings, and digital animations—Valdez is subtly forcing her audience, and herself, to reevaluate both specific symbols and the ways those symbols are used to reinforce notions of the self, the other, and how we all increasingly communicate visually.
Anna Valdez is a visual artist living and working in Northern California. She has a BA degree in Anthropology and Studio Art from UC Davis and an MFA in painting from Boston University. Her work has been exhibited in group and solo presentations in Boston, MA; Davis, CA; Monroe, LA; and Framingham, MA. She currently works primarily as a painter and animator in San Rafael, CA.