"Ink Goes Deep: Interview with Rodrigo Valenzuela"
Interview conducted by Mica Bahn.
Rodrigo Valenzuela’s most recent series, Stature is comprised of eight photogravures that capture the artist’s studio constructions. In rich monochromatic tones, Stature elicits brutalist imagery through forms created from concrete molds of discarded waste. The Chilean-born artist’s work is part of a trilogy exploring modernism and is on view at the Asya Geisberg Gallery through December 19th.
Musée Magazine: I want to begin by congratulating you on your first solo exhibition with the Asya Geisberg Gallery. I’m curious, what initially attracted you to photogravures?
Rodrigo Valenzuela: The primary reason I wanted to do photogravures is that I was searching for something that would feel like an indentation on the paper. I wanted the printed ink to be deep in the paper in the way that the concrete forms I’ve been taking photos of are heavy. And also, because the inks get so deep in the paper, they get this velvety look that’s almost dusty in the same way that the concrete is dusty. With the photogravures, there is an illogic in the grain, but it’s also super sharp. Secondly, I wanted to slow down the process of photographing in a way unique to the experience of making an image. So, each photo is different. Every time I print, I have to touch it. It’s very nice to be able to print images whenever you want digitally, because there is a consistency. But with this, there is a uniqueness. The prints become more interesting when they have problems. Which is closer to life in some ways.
Musée: I read a bit about the methods with which you created the compositions––the forms all carefully stacked rather than glued––do you feel that the process of image making, in addition to the final product, helps to construct your narrative?
Rodrigo: Slowly, I’ve become more comfortable with improvising. You need to create the conditions for things to perform. That’s why you see the same box repeated in these photogravures. It is like a stage where these objects can become performers for the camera. Each one has elements that you are oddly familiar with, but you can’t describe them because they are the negative of something familiar. For example, that horizontal long shape [indicating a photo in the gallery] is the cover casing for a television. I fill the Styrofoam casing with concrete and the product is the negative space of an electronic discarded element. It’s really interesting to consider that we are so familiar with these byproducts of capitalism, so that even this negative space of those objects looks familiar. When you start placing them in these precarious conditions it allows you to use them as iconological elements. When placed along with each other, they start to form sentences. One of the reasons to have them balancing and not glued is the lack of commitment to one form, the openness to create discord.
Musée: These images have a certain spatial and tactile ambiguity due to the threedimensional references and printing process. They almost feel like stone rubbings. Can you tell me about the series’ back story?
Rodrigo: The series is part of my trilogy, if you will, of this modernist aesthetic. And to me, it is very important to consider the political ideas that the aesthetic of modernism brought. During times of the most oppressive laws and politics executed in Latin America, brutalism and modernism were some of the most predominant aesthetics. Every government in Latin America had a dictator. I had the same considerations with the previous series I did, American Type. I was talking about the point where American modernist ideas, specifically after expressionism, became expressions of American imperialism. The second part is thinking about the minimum gestures needed to call something imperialist architecture. There is something about concrete that screams institutional power. You touch concrete and you know that you are in a place that you’re not supposed to lay down and be comfortable.
Musée: There is no sense of the personal.
Rodrigo: Yes, they’re a bit like people repellents. As soon as you see concrete, I’m creating the conditions for you to feel that this is not a welcoming space.
Musée: Due to the physical and architectural nature of much of your work, you could have chosen to leave it as an installation. Why supplement it with photography?
Rodrigo: It is super important for me to consider my role as a photographer and as a Latin American artist working here. It is important to not solely take that moment of photographing as a documentation of an action or an event, but as the perpetuity of a thought. This medium is known for its immediacy, yet these images take me a month to make. I have to make the concrete shapes, then organize them, photograph with a medium format camera, develop the film, transfer them into a copper plate, then I go to Mexico to print them. That’s another reason why the cameras all have the same vantage point, because it’s about thinking with the image, not about the image. It’s all of the thoughts I can have in the space. I want photography to be an exercise of the mind, more than the eyes.
Musée: The entire personal statement on your website is very beautiful. I particularly love what you say about how the work, “serves as an expressive and intimate point of contact between the broader realms of subjectivity and political contingency.”
Rodrigo: You see it a lot in photography right now where eyes are put on artists of color. I think we have a very unique opportunity to bring a lot of issues to attention. And I wish more art could be used as a departure point and not as an arrival point. I don’t think you should only make works that arrive at who you are. The more time I spend making art, the more I think I need to offer some sort of solution for the problems I see in the world. Poetics where your imagination can flow around––that’s what I mean when I say using the work as a departure. That’s why I started with talking about the history of imperialism. To think about how it affects us, slowly moving through the years.
Musée: This also has to do with your next project?
Rodrigo Valenzuela: In the next project I’m working on, I’m coming back to the formation of the labor union. Not to have a nostalgic industrial mentality, but to me it’s like we have abandoned the thought of the labor unions. We’re going to see with the pandemic that there is no safety net for young people. Most artists don’t have any safety net or health insurance. Labor unions are an idea that we abandoned because capitalism won, but it’s interesting to come back to the history and analyze that history. The project offers a way of thinking poetically about what it means to lose that brotherhood/sisterhood as a working-class people.
Musée: Art has the potential to create new blueprints for how we approach these issues.
Rodrigo: It’s interesting to think that we cannot affect the ethos of the time that we live. You can translate what you feel in the environment and you can condition those environments much more precisely.
Image: © Rodrigo Valenzuela, Stature No. 1, 2020. Photogravure. Courtesy of Asya Geisberg Gallery.