JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2014, 2015, and 2017. The works are drawn from three separate series – Hedonic Reversal, Trophy Room, and General Song. Physical sizes are either 34×42, 36×44, or 55×45 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of 3. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Across the history of the medium, when photographers have shut themselves up in their studios, often what has emerged are essentially exercises in solving self-arranged puzzles of space and form, where the flattening eye of the camera has enabled various optical games and illusions. For some, like Fischli & Weiss and Alejandra Laviada, the results have been resolutely (and playfully) sculptural; for others, like Florence Henri, Barbara Kasten, and more recently Yamini Nayar, the process has led toward intricately constructed abstraction, and the further exploration of deliberate distortion and visual confusion.
Rodrigo Valenzuela’s recent contributions to this genre build on many of these same themes and techniques, while also introducing a more personal/political aspect to the proceedings. The Chilean-born Valenzuela’s story is full of extremes and contradictions: life under the Pinochet regime, a BFA earned in Santiago, emigration to Canada and then the US, work as an undocumented day laborer, and now a coveted teaching post at UCLA. This tightly-edited sampler-style survey offers a quick review of some of Valenzuela’s recent studio projects, where his complex constructions are rooted in broader experiences drawn from his own life, including feelings of separation, alienation, and displacement.
The two images on view from the artist’s Hedonic Reversal series are white on black constructions of chalky drywall slabs arranged on his studio floor. Apparently meant to evoke the look of ancient architectural ruins, the compositions have a sense of unfinished order, with intersecting lines and unfinished grids creating the semblance of planned arrangement while still feeling wholly improvisational. The images draw much of their vitality from the integration of mural sized photographs of the same studio setup, which create layers of spatial intermingling and deliberate disorientation. Just as in Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s recent work, paper photographic prints are being smartly used as part of the overall assemblage, bending our perception of what is taking place back in on itself.
The pictures from Valenzuela’s Trophy Room series step back from this illusionism, instead exploring the repurposing of ordinary construction materials. Wooden sawhorses have been outfitted with fluorescent lights underneath the crossbar, turning the forgettable structures into glowing portals. Cinder blocks have similarly been reconsidered, the forms broken in half to become I-beam shapes, which are then piled into jumbled towers. When used together in one arrangement, and set in a darkened warehouse space, the pieces form a makeshift altar draped with a piece of cloth like the robe of a religious figure. In another, an image of a humble sign painter is placed within the brightly lit shrine, conflating the fine and professional arts.
The strongest images on view are from Valenzuela’s General Song series, and they build on aesthetic lessons learned in the previous two projects. Each is loosely based on the form of a barricade, drawing architectural motifs and materials equally from makeshift immigrant housing and protest structures. Using an enveloping white on white palette, Valenzuela brings back the illusionism of the rephotographed studio mural and puts it together with larger sculptural installations that have been expanded to include rubber tires, long planks and 2x4s, corrugated tin sheets, wooden pallets, and metal folding chairs. The result is a set of final images that have much more physical heft and spatial interest, but are still pleasingly confusing, as the artist plays clever tricks with images of things connecting with real things to create impossible realities. Even when using rough and bulky materials, Valenzuela has found quiet elegance in his arrangements, where precarious balance and formal harmony are carefully managed. The pictures can be read as complex arrangements of abstract geometric forms (circles, lines, or angles) and as more political statements about barricades that block, interrupt, and frustrate cooperation and integration, and that duality gives the images extra punch – they are both photographs about photographs and understated comments on real life.
While many photographs constructed in the studio feel tight and intricate, there is something fuller about Valenzuela’s approach to scale. These aren’t jewel boxes or lab bench experiments, but room filling installations that wrangle with human-sized objects. That muscularity is intriguing, as it frees formalism from some of its typical constraints, and it opens the door to Valenzuela expanding the definitions of photographic installation.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $5000 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.