JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 photographic works, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against grey spray painted walls in the main gallery space and the back office area. 11 of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 2021 and 2022. Physical sizes are either 24×30 or 32×40, and all of the prints are available in editions of 3+1AP. The show also includes 1 silkscreen print on collaged time cards on canvas from 2021. It is sized 36×48 inches and is unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)
A concurrent exhibition, including additional photographs, sculptures, and video works, is on view at BRIC (here), from September 22 through December 23, 2022.
Comments/Context: Stepping into the gallery space for Rodrigo Valenzuela’s new show feels like walking directly into one of his constructions. The walls have been loosely spray painted with mists and drips of industrial grey and the concrete floor is bare, creating a mood that is muted, claustrophobic, and vaguely imposing, like an unfinished or abandoned warehouse. In this space, Valenzuela has hung his recent photographs, like windows into additional worlds of mysterious, smoke-filled mechanical work.
It’s been a busy handful of years for Valenzuela, who has had a string of New York gallery shows of new work (in 2018, reviewed here, 2019, reviewed here, and 2020, reviewed here), followed up with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021. Along the way, he has continued to experiment with the possibilities of made-to-be-photographed installation and sculptural construction, using rough materials (like cinder blocks, two-by-fours, and other scavenged scrap) and his own physical labor to explore a range of underlying themes, moods, artistic references, and aesthetic illusions.
This show is centered on Valenzuela’s recent project Afterwork, a title with a pleasing sense of ambiguity; it might simply refer to the moment in time when the work is done and the workers have left the scene, or it could describe a more post-apocalyptic scenario, when work itself is somehow something different, or altogether eliminated. Valenzuela’s photographs offer no easy answers, settling into expressive, almost timeless zones of deliberate confusion, where we can’t quite determine what kind of work might have been taking place, or when it might have been done; it all looks approximately industrial, but the recognizable pieces have been jumbled and reassembled in ways that defy obvious purpose or function.
Many of Valenzuela’s constructions look like something from a grimly futuristic movie set, where work has been pushed beyond the mechanistic form of the assembly line to something even more dehumanizing. Robotic devices stand in the empty rooms, with swooping metallic arms that perform unknowable tasks, one unit connected to the next with pipes and gears. Smoke (or milky dust) rises from these silent hulks, like overheating or burnt out motors left to rest, the incomprehensible systems seemingly creaking and clicking. Valenzuela clearly has an eye for the formal elements of these arrangements, using tubes and poles to create lines of perspective, mirrored ribs, and angled support structures, with the swooping curves of tubes bringing gestural motion to the otherwise partially geometric constructions. Open cubes and chains hang from the ceiling, spindly braces like the arms of a broken umbrella reach outward in radial arrangements, strange hooks and circular discs protrude from walls, and ominous engines stand on pedestals, like loudspeakers shouting commands, each room offering its own form of unspoken torture and alienation.
A few works from Valenzuela’s recent Case and Weapons series have been mixed into the larger selection of images from Afterwork, offering a kind of inevitable reaction and response to the numbing effects of the photographer’s piece-part industrialization. In the Case pictures, the machinery seems to have taken on a life of its own, reassembling itself into animalistic forms, with spiked tails, jagged backs, and multiple heads. Nails, saw blades, linked chains, and other sharp objects give these jumbled anthropomorphic constructions a feeling of protective menace, like Mad Max (or Picasso-esque) inventions that have come to life and armored themselves for combat. The rise and rebellion of the workers takes more direct form in a silkscreened work from Weapons, where the available industrial scrap has been fashioned into a weapon of sorts with scythe-like blades. The image has been printed atop an array of union time cards (see the detail image above), making the context of the impending battle (or strike) more clear.
While we might be tempted to graft our own narratives onto Valenzuela’s constructions, seeing perhaps pandemic-era “essential” workers leaving their posts in a mass exodus, or automation and AI-systems depopulating workspaces to the point that the machines rebel, Valenzuela has left the images open ended enough to encourage plenty of alternate interpretations. Aesthetically, he continues to play with the possibilities offered by industrial raw materials arranged in constrained settings, encouraging the forms themselves to imply darker ranges of moods and environments. Quietly, he’s forging a compellingly unique artistic path, where photography symbiotically supports the primary activities of sculpture and installation, transforming his built-structures into even richer and more nuanced visual experiences.
Collector’s POV: The photographic prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $6500, based on size, with the one silkscreen print priced at $8000. Valenzuela’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.