Time is ticking and here at the Henry we’re getting ready for the annual University of Washington Master of Fine Arts exhibition. I’ll be providing you with studio visits and other such posts of the candidates hard at work as they prepare to finish their masters work and instal their pieces in the gallery.
First up, I give you Rodrigo Valenzuela- photomedia candidate, videographer, uber talented man-about-town and all around smooth operator.
I sat down with Rodrigo in his basement studio on campus this week to chat about his latest series and the upcoming show. We talked about made-up places and how to get illegal workers to open up about their lives on camera. The works we talked about include three huge black and white digitally compiled prints mounted on plexi and one video piece. The prints are compiled from his images of desert landscapes, beaches, mountain ranges and rolling hills taken everywhere from Chile, Peru and the northwest. Ramshackle shelters and lean-tos litter these imaginary scenes. Many of the original images come from his latest trip back home to Chile, his first time back in seven years. “Spending time in the desert (of Peru and Chile) I realized how much people want to have this sense of attachment to their land. They’re in these little remote places, these people don’t care- they have this sense that they belong somewhere. I never really cared that much about being a part of a place, so I started making these images. These collages that are six or seven places put together, made-up places for people without that sense of nostalgia…”
For the video work Diamond Box, Rodrigo spent months hanging out at Home Depot, picking up illegal workers and talking to them about their experiences coming to the states. He set up a backdrop of corrugated metal in his studio and ended up getting 15 workers to come in and sit down for him, paying the men for their time hourly (Rodrigo was awarded with funding from Sprout for this video project). The images and the video work all stem from his own experience crossing the border from Montreal to the US illegally in 2006 and the displacement that comes with it. After studying philosophy and art history in Chile and then in Montreal, he says, “they wouldn’t give me a visa, and so I kept waiting for the right time, but it never was the right time. So I just decided to cross the border. I just walked from Montreal to Boston.” He spent the next three years finding work as a day laborer like the men whose stories he depicts in his video. He recognizes there is a level of manipulation in getting these men to first come with him back to his studio and then tell their stories on camera, but insists it’s for the sake of making more interesting work. The voices are detached from each speaker, a choice that Rodrigo says makes the story feel “…bigger than each individual, reinforcing that you the audience is the mediator- you have to put the story together.” So how did he get them to open up? “You just have to talk about girls,” he says.
He gets flack and sometimes he hears people say that he makes “pretty images” whereas other artists make “conceptual” work. He says “bullsh*t” to that. Hearing him talk about the series, it’s obvious this isn’t just the story of the men in the video, but, it’s his too. “All of these guys want to improve their lives…for them, they’re willing to have a sh*ttier life here in order to provide a better life for their families in Mexico. They will sacrifice their life to constantly be missing someplace else.” For this series he says, “it’s really socially based, but it’s also really personal.”
As for the impending MFA show he feels ready. “This is the best I can do for this moment. I don’t get obsessed. I think there is so much you can do, I could keep working on the photos more, I can edit more, I can keep photo-shopping more but the work…it’s really the idea. If the idea is sh*tty, you know you can make it shinier, but it’s not going to get any better. I think…I hope…when you work with honesty, people realize that.”
The guy is seemingly tireless and has all sorts of things on the horizon. Tomorrow night he’s up for the Spring Art Walk Awards hosted by City Arts Magazine at Melrose Market (come out for this, it’s going to be a great evening), next month he’s going to the Vimeo awards in New York as a nominee for his video Diamond Box, come fall he’ll continue teaching video classes at the UW and next year he has a collaborative show with soon-to-be MFA graduate sculptor Tony Sonnenberg at 4Culture. PHEW.
So please, do join us for the 2012 UW MFA opening on Friday May 25th from 7-9pm. More info here.
Check back for more studio visits next week…