IT'S RARE to see art that strikes an intellectual nerve, a visual nerve, and a personal nerve, but the photographs and videos in Rodrigo Valenzuela's fantastic show Help Wanted hit all of these marks: The show is conceptually curious, beautifully crafted, and it has a story behind it.
Valenzuela emigrated from Chile to the United States in 2005. He lived for three years without documentation, finding work through labor agencies and by standing on the street; he recalls his time on construction sites, and "the ridiculousness of a 22-year-old Latino guy eating lunch by himself and reading Kant."
Now he lives in Seattle, where he won The Stranger newspaper's coveted Genius Award in Visual Art last year. The Stranger's art critic, Jen Graves, praised him as "generous and hardworking" in writing about the award.
Valenzuela's images have deep philosophical roots. They beg a lot of questions: What do we expect from a photograph? How is an image constructed? What is real in a photograph? What is real, anyway? And down the post-modern rabbit hole we go. What's most incredible is that Valenzuela actually makes you care to contemplate these things—probably due to how he engages others in his work. For his video "Diamond Box," Valenzuela invited a number of day laborers to his studio and paid them to tell their experiences of immigration; he wove these stories together into one narrative. "I put together something that resembled my story, but it is everyone's story," he explained. "There are tons of Latino guys that come to the USA, every single day." The audio plays over long cuts of the individuals' faces.
Valenzuela travels a lot, from one residency and one show to another, and his photographs are similarly stitched together and fractured, some taken inside his studio, some taken around the country. Help Wanted is a collage of several series of Valenzuela's work. They are shot with a digital camera and a film camera, then scanned and digitally manipulated and seamed together. In a series titled The Goalkeeper, his photos look like an abandoned Hollywood set: planks jut out of nowhere. Landscapes have been printed as backdrops, and then torn down. There are floodlights that have no cords, but still retain shadows of cords. It's a series of illusions and suspended realities. At the same time, in conversation about the work, Valenzuela flits from Velázquez to Michel Foucault; his work is informed by and understands its history, without having solid footing itself. In the end, this might be the most secure way to look at history.