“If you’re in the collection, where is your work?” was the frequently heard question that inspired Texas-based artist Paul C. Valadez to conduct a performance art piece during the opening week of The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in June 2022.
When Valadez arrived a few days before the event in Riverside, California, he visited a bookstore and purchased a vintage, leather-bound book. That evening, using pencil and watercolor, he began drawing images of Mexican food on its pages.
Why Mexican food? To him, Valadez feels that Mexican food is the only constant in his Mexican/American/Chicano experience.
“There is no singular meaning of what a Chicano is outside the fact that if I go to Mexico, I am an American, and when I go back to America, I do not feel wholly American,” said the artist. “There are so many words to describe ourselves: Mexican-American, Latino/a/x, Hispanic, Chicano/a/x, Xicano/a/x, Mexicano/Mexicana, Mestizo, Californiano/Californiana, Nuevo Mexicano/Nuevo Mexicana, Tejano/Tejana, and more.”
He continued, “The only thing that we can agree on is what Mexican food is and what it is not. So, I use an image or signifier of Mexican food as my starting point of expression.” To that imagery, he adds what he calls “trigger words” intended to modify the imagery, which is the language surrounding him at the time and what is in the news.
During the artist reception at The Cheech on Friday, June 17, 2022, Valadez began giving away his looseleaf pages adorned with artwork to strangers who he felt looked approachable. He eventually titled this site-specific performance as My Potlatch Project: Giving Away Mexican Food at The Cheech Opening. He told everyone that he was an artist in the collection and wanted them to have an original drawing. After Valadez received several surprised looks followed by many yeses, he then started approaching those he felt were less approachable and kept track of the “in his face” noes. He got 14, which did not include those who ignored him or the people who simply walked away.
When all was said and done, Valadez made 162 drawings and gave away 143 drawings. The final physical documentation of the performance art piece consists of two bound covers of the book adorned with the artist’s written assorted facts and figures about his performance and accompanied by 19 looseleaf pages of drawings created using pencil and watercolor. This documentation was given to The Cheech for future inclusion in its permanent collection.
His wife Lisa and other attendees documented Valadez through photographs and videos as he conducted his performance art during the event. For Valadez, it was a way for him to feel “humble, the opposite of money-fueled ego and the inadvertent arrogance of some.”
This artistic act of Valadez creating, signing and giving away his art is an ongoing performance art piece that he calls “My Potlatch Project.” Each performance stands on its own as a meta-conceptual artwork. He shares that his use of the word potlatch is somewhat of a cultural appropriation separated from its original meaning. “It is really like penance for me outside of a religious context. I think of it as my humble act to give away stuff through ‘My Potlatch Project’ performance,’” said Valadez.
Valadez says he has been “tilting at windmills” for over 25 years. He was the first person in his family to earn a four-year degree, and is also the only one in his extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews) to earn an advanced degree. This has allowed him to continue making art while earning a living teaching art at a regional university campus on the Texas/Mexico border.
In addition to The Cheech, Valadez has performed his project at numerous institutions, including the Nevada Museum of Art, The University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art, and The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. In October 2018, Valadez launched his “My Potlatch Project” during the opening of the Selections from the Great American Songbook at the Louis Blume Library of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. Most recently, in January 2023, he performed at the Resonator Institute in Norman, Oklahoma. He has also placed his artwork in over 50 institutional collections without selling any of it. He shared, “My artwork does nothing just sitting in my studio on the Texas/Mexico border.”
Valadez is currently an assistant professor of art at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (formerly the University of Texas-Pan American), which is located along the U.S.-Mexico border. Currently residing in Edinburg, Texas, he was born in San Francisco and grew up in Stockton, California. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Art from the San Francisco Art Institute and received his Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina in 2003 where he was awarded a Weiss Fellowship for Urban Livability. Valadez uses mixed media, acrylics, metal, and text to create works that deal subtly with race, culture, and history through a concept of “old signage.” His current work is autobiographical in nature with a somewhat satirical social commentary, which he finds is a reflection of his childhood memories and growing up in a bicultural household in the Central Valley in California.
ARTIST STATEMENT BY PAUL C. VALADEZ: I created “My Potlatch Project” so I could be an artist outside of the system and in the face of many obstacles. I do not have money or do I come from money; I have always had to earn a living. I did not go to Yale. I do not socialize nor am I invited to dinner parties with curators and collectors.
I do not get invited to biennials, I do not leave a gallery for a better gallery because I have never had gallery representation. I am in my fifties and I have been told that galleries don’t look at first time representation of artists who are older than 35 years of age.
No gallery equals no art fairs and no collectors. No auctions means that I have no distinguishable record of sales (I do have one auction record of 100 dollars). This means no sales by wealthy donors gifting my work to institutions for tax deductions of the value of the art based upon auction records.
So I embarked on this lifetime “My Potlatch Project.” In the largest sense, this project is a large conceptual artwork and a performance art piece on the idea of giving art away, or the idea of “generosity as selfishness. I took the word “potlatch” as a form of cultural appropriation and ultimately in an artistic context separated from its original meaning of being an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige.
What is a potlatch? Traditionally, it is a ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to affirm or reaffirm social status, as uniquely institutionalized by the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast.
DOCUMENTATION OF 2022 PERFORMANCE ART PIECE BY PAUL C. VALADEZ AT THE CHEECH MARIN CENTER FOR CHICANO ART & CULTURE OF THE RIVERSIDE ART MUSEUM
- Artwork Title: Potlatch Project: Giving Away Mexican Food at The Cheech Opening
- Artist: Valadez, Paul C.
- Artist Notes: Documentation of performance art on Friday, June 17, 2022 in Riverside, California by Paul C. Valadez, one of his many books associated with his ongoing “Potlatch Project” series
- Date: 2022
- Medium: altered found book with pencil drawings on pages and book binding disbound
- Dimensions: Pages are 4.75” wide x 7.25” high, and covers are 5” wide x 7.5” high 1.25” deep
- Provenance: Riverside, California
- Book: Der Katzensteg (Kattspången) by Hermann Sudermann (one of the leading writers of the German naturalist movement) is one of the best known of the author’s early novels. In English, the book title means “Cat Walk.” The book was purchased on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 at a local used bookstore called Downtowne Books (founded in 1979)
- Date: 1927
- Format: Hardcover (half-calf leather binding with gold leaf)
- Publisher: Balitska Forlaget Aktiebolag (January 1, 1927)
- Specifications: 320 pages; 7.5 x 5 inches (19 x 13 cm); 1.14 lbs (510 grams)