Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Timely Clarity on the American Worker
Luis De Jesus, Los Angeles
Through February 19, 2022
Written by Ashley Ouderkirk
The American worker is having a moment. Headlines have declared the current power shift from employer to employee as “The Great Resignation” of twenty-four million people, and, for the first time in fifty years, unions in the United States are increasing in popularity, infiltrating some of the largest corporations. Indeed, one of the silver linings of this horrific pandemic has been this empowerment of the worker when automation and downsizing have eroded their perceived value for decades. Perhaps this is why Rodrigo Valenzuela’s first solo exhibition at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, RODRIGO VALENZUELA: New Works for a Post-Workers World, feels so timely and authentic.
Housed in the main gallery space, twenty-four black and white photographic works are displayed around the room and on two scaffold-like wooden towers. In this show, Chilean-born artist Rodrigo Valenzuela tackles a few of the hardships faced by people in this rapidly changing employment landscape in three separate— but related— series titled Weapons, Case, and Afterwork.
At the height of the pandemic’s lockdown, Valenzuela contemplated the potential outcomes of the workforce bottleneck. Would there be an aggressive worker rebellion to improve their quality of life? What will the consequences be to a workforce lacking in-person mentorship? These questions and others cultivated the idea of the “Post-Worker,” or the supposition of what will remain and what will change after this new labor movement.
As with many of his photographs, Valenzuela began by assembling temporary sculptures and installations in his studio. Using mostly discarded objects found from around the neighborhood, he places or stacks (and sometimes hot- glues) objects together creating new environments or totemic-like sculptures to photograph. For Valenzuela the effort of creating each part of the work — from collecting the objects, to photographing, to building the frames — underscores his fundamental belief in the value of labor.
In Weapons #2, we see an intimidating humanoid figure composed of various industrial found-objects. A slender flashlight-looking piece creates the central shaft and is capped with a tilted air filter —the grill reminiscent of a medieval knight’s helmet. This figure holds a gear-part as a shield, and, to its right an armature is attached to a long, jagged object resembling a spear. Covered in spikes made of screws, this soldier-totem appears prepared for battle, erect and alert. This work, like others in the Weapons series, all appear fortified and ready to be used as needed.
Always experimenting and looking to push the boundaries of photography, Valenzuela adds to the narrative by incorporating another physical layer to the work; each photograph is screen printed onto a collection of unused timecards with lines of text repeating, “STRIKE,” “UNION” or “SINDICATO” rolled-on using a handheld printer. The language is a call-to-arms for workers to unite against an incessant threat and common enemy. For Valenzuela, this threat comes directly from corporations and the toxic culture they perpetuate. These “weapons” are in turn symbols of the resistance and used to intimidate and wage psychological warfare.
It would not be a stretch to imagine these as effective propaganda posters plastered defiantly on “post no bills” construction sites across the city. Each a reminder for workers to rebel against unfair practices — low wages, lack of healthcare and unreasonable hours — and recognize the power of binding together, and, like the art, using whatever is available to achieve this goal.
Beyond the call to rebellion, Valenzuela delves deeper with his Afterwork series, posing the question: Will our efforts be enough?
Despite notable gains, the artist reminds us that we are living in what experts call “the fourth industrial revolution,” where technological advances are moving beyond improvements in manufacturing efficiency, and have begun infiltrating retail, transportation, and even into white collar work. This, it seems, is what the Afterwork series explores— an alternate ending.
Afterwork #1 opens into a narrow, factory-like room with chains suspended from the ceiling and two steel-beam structures tangled within, dangling precariously. It is a haunting image, perhaps created to feel even more eerie by the presence of a ghostly-white mist appearing to seep from below. There is no sense of decay with rust or crumbling structures, or even nature reclaiming the space. Instead, we witness the moment immediately after the workers have vacated. It’s as if they were vaporized, snatched away in an instantaneous rapture. Here the artist reminds us of business closures, mass layoffs, and the downsizing that automation and other technologies have created. In this Afterwork world, the worker and laborer are no longer needed and it happened fast.
The artworks in the show exude a mixture of equal parts prophecy and cautionary tale. On the one hand, the vacancy solidifies a blunt reminder of what progress can bring. On the other hand, the imagery empowers the worker to take a stand for a moral economy, as have many labor movements throughout history.
When asked what he hopes the viewer will experience after seeing his show, Valenzuela replied “a rebellious feeling.” Let’s continue moving in that direction.
Rodrigo Valenzuela will also be creating a related Post-Workers installation with clay objects to be featured at Frieze.
Ashley Ouderkirk is an independent curator and emerging artist consultant who splits her time between New York City and Los Angeles. @ouderkirkonart