By Grant Klarich Johnson
In Amanda Valdez’s First Might, passages of quilting, oil painting, and embroidery floss combine to create canvases in which craft and art’s textures synthetically blend. This pastiche mode arrives in the highly tactile surfaces of large works like my sister (2018), featuring pinwheel-patterned, quilted borders that frame an image of a monumental vase rendered out of luscious swaths of Kelly green and emerald embroidery floss, balanced beside blocks of solid slate grey paint. In Lover’s Link (2018), abbreviated patches of expressionistically scribbled oil stick on mounted paper in alternating colors (maroon, blush, lilac, tangerine, and chocolate) contrast with the much tidier, geometric quilting of fabric rectangles in pink, blue, peach, and grey, meticulously sewn into similarly oscillating vectors, and stitched into the surrounding canvas. A pink funnel of more floss hangs in between them. Valdez’s spirited combinations—the quilting, evocative of the American Midwest; the pottery silhouettes and patterns, reminiscent of Indigenous and Latin American art—deploy abstract and decorative motifs to evoke and luxuriate in the diversity of the American continent, from North to South, and ancient past to present. They are at their strongest at their largest scale, as in my sister, when Valdez gives ample space to experimental, rich fields of intricate and exciting quilting parlayed into the space of painting.
Unity arises between the varied media and patterns employed in the show’s nine works, thanks to Valdez’s excellence as a sensitive, thoughtful colorist, as well as the characteristic free-form contours that define all of her silhouettes, evoking a surrealist automatism: the autograph of the hand rather than the hard, straight line of the machine. Valdez’s contours connect materially distinct fields with their continuous perimeter, encouraging plays of figure versus ground as certain discrete shapes appear to recede or project when compared to their neighbor across these lyrical edges. In these intensely haptic works, studying their varied surfaces at close range gives the viewer some of the tactile satisfaction Valdez likely experienced while crafting them by hand. Valdez’s highly textured paintings often lead one to believe that they picture ‘real’ sculptural vessels—mysterious artifacts of a forgotten culture that might exist beyond the canvas. They snuggly fit and jigsaw these expressive forms into the regular rectangle of the canvas, recalling the ceramics studies of Jonas Wood.
The only full tapestry on view, Full Tanit (2018), towers over the exhibition’s other works. Valdez created Full Tanit while in residence with the New Roots Foundation in Antigua, Guatemala in collaboration with a local weaving workshop (which also, notably, created Sheila Hicks’s monumental weavings for the Venice Biennale in 2017). Inspired by the mixed media approach Valdez takes in her paintings, Full Tanit combines distinct weaving techniques, such as shag and flat weaves, in a variety of fibers, including wool, chenille, alpaca, mohair, and cotton. Occupying an entire wall with its graphic announcement, it unfortunately lacks the lively spirit of Valdez’s canvases, looking more static and balanced instead.
In title and pattern, cabin fever (2018), conveys a pioneer spirit shot through with a beachy palette of coral sand pinks, robin’s egg blue embroidery, and shades legible as both earth and flesh tones of buff, browns, and beige. Perhaps because they work so hard to imagine either inanimate or entirely non-objective forms, often with the ponderous heft of physically real sculpture, these paintings encourage one to glimpse an anthropomorphic humanity condensed in this inanimate matter. Echoes of the human body surface throughout the exhibition but are nowhere more explicit than in other (2018), a russet composition highlighted by ruby and rust quilted with a pattern of whirlpooling rectangles with gem-like garnet squares at their cores. It conjures a pair of splaying legs, the part in a head of hair, and the swell of a pregnant torso glimpsed in profile. And to wit, the quilting and triangular or v-shaped motifs to be found in my sister or Lover’s Link remind of similar commitments to celebrate a feminine iconography and gendered media in the historic work of Miriam Schapiro or Judy Chicago, marking Valdez’s canvases as similarly feminist investments in both medium and motif for this century. By valuing and incorporating a diversity of techniques and materials, Valdez’s investigations in abstraction give rise to a humanist possibility in a moment when we, as a society, are largely failing to value and reconcile a similar diversity of perspectives and peoples.