In the Eyes of the Beholder and the Observed: The Photography of Patssi Valdez

This essay is one of six and appears as part of a series created by Rocio Sanchez-Nolasco to explore the photographic work of artist Patssi Valdez.

Patssi Valdez (b. 1951) is a contemporary Chicana artist whose artistic trajectory for the past 38 years has encompassed a wide range of media including performance art, conceptual art, photography, fashion design, set design, prints, and painting. Despite the versatility of Valdez’s artistic career, scholarly and artistic dialogues mostly focus on her work as a member of the art collective “Asco” and as an avant-garde expressionist painter. Although these could be seen as the main stages of Valdez’s career, the versatility of Valdez’s artistic practice sustains a broader discussion of her contributions to the fields of art history and Chicana visual and cultural production.

Most discussions of Valdez’s artistic career begin with Asco, an East LA based art collective active from 1970-1987. Asco is best known for their production of photographic, conceptual and performance art that was politically motivated to pinpoint the disparities experienced by Mexican-Americans in East LA. Valdez appears as the face of multiple artworks, including as the “star” of the “No Movies” genre and iconic performances documented through photography. Valdez was able to develop her own unique aesthetics portrayed through her own physical appearance with dramatic makeup and clothing, embedding her own image and vision within the art. Scholars have used a wide array of adjectives attempting to pinpoint the exact nature of Valdez’s self-presentation. Although makeup and costume were used by all of the founding members of Asco, Valdez’s self-image has generated the most interest and fascination. In a podcast interview for Sanguine Gallery, Valdez discussed how she projected an image of glamour during this stage of her career as an attempt to show a more wide-ranging image of Mexicans and Latinos beyond that being represented in Hollywood and other industries.

Valdez first began dedicating her artistic career to painting in 1988, after independently learning how to hone her skills in the medium. Valdez’s early paintings display a somber tone, portraying domestic spaces that reject a sense of tranquility for a vulnerable, emotional evocation. Following a period of two years, Valdez’s painting style dramatically changed and she began to portray the domestic realm as a vibrant, vivid space. The absence of figures was consistent in both of the painting styles, leaving the focus of the painting on the space itself. Valdez’s scenes of domestic spaces speak to the viewer of the energy reminiscent of the figures that once occupied the space. Her paintings leave viewers to wonder: Who occupied this space? Who lived here? Whose home was this?

Valdez’s early artistic endeavors, which focused on the body and the manipulation of appearances to create visual allure while simultaneously criticizing modes of categorization, was followed by a stage in which the body was no longer directly depicted in her paintings. Yet, the body remains omnipresent in her paintings, where she focuses on creating a personal understanding through the built environment. Valdez’s photographic portraits of the early 1980s contrast her earlier and later work by demonstrating how personal presentation and identity simultaneously navigate between the private and public realm. Photography functioned to mitigate a transition in Valdez’s career and created an opportunity for her to rearticulate her artistic style when the use of her personal presentation was no longer a key component. Valdez created a body of photographic works over the course of ten years that reflect the nuances of the photographic subject and Valdez’s artistic style. As someone familiar with the position in front of the camera, Valdez used this experience and her personal social network to produce photographs with complete artistic control -- from producing the photographs to further enhancing them with mixed media to produce a collage. Through its physical production, Valdez’s photography creates a layered and multi-dimensional facture relevant to understanding the personal, feminine subjectivity portrayed by the photographic subjects.

This is the introduction and first installation of a six part series exploring the photography of Patssi Valdez. This photographic body of works has yet to be fully and comprehensively studied. This series aims to provide insight into five different photographic artworks by Valdez and explore the influence of the East LA punk music scene and its networks, Chicana subjectivity, personal agency, and the power of self-fashioning.