McColl Center for Art + Innovation, Charlotte, NC
September 14–December 2, 2017
The Los Angeles–based artist Rodrigo Valenzuela constructs scenes and narratives that point to the tensions between individuals and the societies in which they live. Much of Valenzuela’s work addresses the experiences of undocumented immigrants and laborers. In his most recent series of paintings, entitled New Land, the artist considers the ideology of Manifest Destiny—a nineteenth-century belief in the inherent superiority of white European-Americans and their predetermined fortune to conquer North America—as well as the failures of the Homestead Acts that quickened the settlement of public land west of the Mississippi River. Valenzuela’s images of barren desert landscapes, the iconographic American West, invoke both these ideas of expansion and opportunity as well as painful histories of erasure that resonate with present-day debates on immigration, border control, gentrification, and climate change.
Valenzuela creates his landscapes by transferring printing toner onto raw canvas, a laborious process made evident by the wear and tear of the material. For the artist, this technique mimics that of photocopies and is a metaphor for the arduous bureaucratic procedures that immigrants must endure. The artist has first-hand experience of this as he emigrated from Chile to Canada and then to the United States. For many years, Valenzuela worked in the construction industry, a background often reflected in his installation materials, such as drywall and scaffolding, and in his videos. In the New Land works, references to architecture and interior spaces are superimposed on the landscapes, taking the form of lines and boxes that the artist describes as “transition zones” and “structures built out of desire.”
In three videos projected in a converted artist studio, Valenzuela continues to interlace strands of his personal history. From behind the camera, the artist directs day laborers and domestic workers that he hired in cities, such as Seattle and Omaha, to share their stories of immigration. As they discuss opportunities and self-determination, and touch on feelings of fear and isolation, their voices echo both the promise and the limitations of the American Dream. —Nicole J. Caruth
Photos include: New Land No. 5, 2017. Toner, acrylic, chalk on canvas, 50 x 70 inches | New Land No. 10, 2017; Toner, acrylic, chalk on canvas; 96 x 74 inches. | Maria TV, 2014. HD digital video with audio (in Spanish with English subtitles). Running Time: 17 minutes, 15 seconds. Edition: 5 + artist proof. Courtesy the artist and Upfor Gallery.