Don’t let the imposing sculptural installations and nested layers of in-camera spaces and arrayed objects fool you, Rodrigo Valenzuela is a photographer. While he often generates large-scale, labor-intensive scenes and motifs in the studio — tableaux constructed of mixed media structures of paper, plaster, metal and paint — all of this is done in the ultimate service of photography. Except when such as at his last show at Culver City’s Klowden Mann Gallery, when he drills a 15-foot plaster screw through the gallery wall and displays it in the avalanche of its own crumble of destruction, which sometimes just needs to happen.
While his work includes images like landscapes, architectural elements, production processes, and construction apparatuses and are thus not abstract, their subject matter is fairly esoteric. A student of philosophy as well as art, Valenzuela sees all his activities as elements in a larger investigation about the nature of reality, the possibility of truth, and the search for meaning. Valenzuela spoke to the Weekly by phone from Tampa, where he was installing at the museum — just one of the roughly 40 exhibitions he’s had or been part of in the last two years, including a video-based exhibition at the New Museum in New York which had closed just the week before.
Two years ago is also when he moved to L.A., from Portland, after graduating from nearby Evergreen State where he studied philosophy and became a photographer almost by accident. “I really learned English from television,” says Valenzuela. “So I’m very cognizant of how pop culture is embedded in language, creating an ideological apparatus that becomes part of you. At Evergreen we were allowed to be sort of free-range,” he says; so for example he could choose to use video and photography as responses to the texts and topics that interested him.
Subsequent work uses analog “set-building” to question the upside down way in which we signify truth and reality. As he layers objects and images, several realities are layered and a counterfactualism is created that subverts confirmation bias about the truthiness of images. “We think photographs are true but they are fleeting, chosen moments. Building things is true. Why do we think that pictures are more real than objects?” he wants to know.
In his next shows at Portland’s Upfor and at Klowden Mann, he dismantles tropes of L.A. modernism through an architecture of civil disobedience. “I’m from Chile, where labor unions are strong and artists are considered middle class and working class,” he says, explaining why he’s attracted to construction materials like chalk and rebar. “I’m more likely to shop at Home Depot than an art supply store!” But he is ultimately a photographer, and although he doesn’t walk around with a camera, it comes naturally to him to use film to slow down and describe the world. “There are valuable life lessons there,” he says. “Thinking and making are parallel activities.”