Rodrigo Valenzuela, American Type @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 black-and-white photographs, framed in white and unmatted, hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2018. All the prints come in two sizes, 36×44 and 55×45 inches; at the moment, however, the gallery is only selling each work only in one size or the other. The smaller prints are available in an edition of 1+1AP; the larger prints are available in an edition of 3+1AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Almost since the invention of photography, artists have exploited the way photographs can alter perceptions of scale. Often—as in artist B. Wurtz’s pictures of household objects—it’s to make small objects appear monumental. But Chilean-born, Los Angeles–based artist Rodrigo Valenzuela’s recent series of photographs produce the opposite effect: in them, large-scale plaster-and-wire structures look like tabletop sculptures.

Over the past few years, Valenzuela has created several series of photographs related to the works here. In “Hedonic Reversal” (2014), plaster forms scattered across his studio floor suggest ruined cities seen from the air. In “General Song” (2017), piles of white-painted chairs, lumber, and tires conjure makeshift barricades. And in “Trophy Room” (2015), arrangements of cinder blocks, sawhorses, and fluorescent lights resemble stage sets for an absurdist theater production (perhaps one about citizens living under a dictatorship).

For Valenzuela, who left Pinochet’s Chile for Canada before immigrating to the United States, these earlier pieces had an autobiographical underpinning, as well as an understated sociopolitical dimension. Alternately evoking trauma and transformation, they transmitted something of his and other migrants’ physical, emotional, and psychic experiences.

To make this new body of work, Valenzuela set himself a challenge: to imbue abstraction with political content. Taking as his starting point the paintings of American Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline—the show’s title is taken from critic Clement Greenberg’s description of Abstract Expressionism—he made casts of pieces of wood using soot, plaster, and other materials, then photographed them in different configurations against a background of dried clay. Isolated from any context, the massive still lifes—some almost eight feet high—resemble nothing so much as matchstick-wood models resting on an age-crackled painted surface.

Of uncertain materiality and size, these works are deceptive in other ways as well. Like Letha Wilson in her recent photograms, Paul Mpagi Sepuya in his fractured studio portraits, and Sara Cwynar in her stitched-together compositions, Valenzuela uses photographic prints as backdrops for new generations of photos, producing subtle dislocations and disjunctions (including multiple horizon lines) in the space of each picture.

Formally, the photographs’ off-kilter geometries seem natural and even graceful, as they do in Kline’s calligraphic paintings. Conceptually, however, they miss Valenzuela’s stated mark, their pictorial instability not quite radical enough—as it can be in the work of Sepuya or Yamini Nayar—to serve as a metaphor for in-between states or places. Undeniably handsome as well as a little ominous—at times they resemble news images of burned buildings—they are neither as much about the world nor as charged with worldly tensions as those in Valenzuela’s previous exhibitions.

Another touchstone for this artist is Lewis Baltz, whose photographs of real spaces—business parks, parking lots, courtyards, and the like—reduced them to geometric abstractions while still conveying their essential bleakness. It will be interesting to see if Valenzuela’s next body of work can combine this one’s formal power with a more legible message.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $5500 and $8500, based on size and place in the edition. Valenzuela’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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