Visual Art Genius Award Sponsored by Frye Art Museum
A wardrobe full of crisp white shirts.
IS MOST KNOWN FOR:
Making photographs of two landscapes—say, North America and South America—stitched seamlessly into one.
Joke, think, work, talk, drink, in that order.
Preparing to lose, Rodrigo Valenzuela raised his fist at the Moore Theatre Saturday night. "Low-income forever!" he cried. Eight years ago, he entered the United States without papers from Chile and sat outside Home Depot offering day labor. Offer the work, hope someone wants it—being an artist is not so different, except on glittery nights like the Genius Awards, when your adopted city erupts at the sound of your name being pronounced over the loudspeaker. "And the winner is..." Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker intoned, tearing the envelope in her capacity as Most Approachable Museum Director in Seattle (she heads up the artist-friendly Frye), "Rodrigo Valenzuela!" He strode onstage to the swell of an overture by Seattle Rock Orchestra and took a swig from a communal bottle of Smirnoff—the nonhomophobic vodka, as it's come to be known—conveniently located on a table near the mic for just that purpose: consecrating Genius Award winners.
"It's really amazing how this city has opened up opportunities for me," the characteristically suave Valenzuela told the audience, naming immediately the artists who have helped him.
"Seattle is particularly lucky to have, like, amazing women working for our city. If it wasn't for these people, I wouldn't have a chance to make my path. I want to say thank you especially to Mandy Greer, Susan Robb, Susie Lee, and Amanda Manitach for opening doors." SuttonBeresCuller—dudes—also "have been really influential in my short career."
He thanked the University of Chile, his first art school back in Santiago, where he got his formal training. In 2010, five years after he moved to the United States, he finished his master of fine arts at the University of Washington.
"I know it's not like an Oscar theme, but because people are taping it and my mom will get to see... I'd like to say hello to my mom, my dad, my sister," Valenzuela continued. He thanked families who "helped me with a bowl and food in my mouth when I didn't have it" along the way. And he thanked his girlfriend and sometime collaborator Anastasia Yumeko Hill.
"The work could be done anywhere, you know what I mean?" Valenzuela said. "But this work couldn't happen unless people gave you opportunities to do it."
Sweaty and boozy like everyone backstage, Valenzuela said he planned to spend the $5,000 in award money to pay the rent at his Capitol Hill studio, where he sleeps on a bed squeezed up against a bookshelf squeezed up against a chair. It will be empty for a few months. The morning after the Genius Awards, he was flying to the East Coast to work on upcoming shows. At 7 a.m., he posted a picture on Facebook of himself looking haggard, sitting at the computer by his window in a hazy light blending machine glow and Seattle gray—this is our naturalest light now—still wearing his white genius sash.
"See you next year, Seattle," he wrote. "I will be in NYC and Santa Barbara making new work and drinking mojitos." One hundred and seventy-five people immediately liked this. "Buena suerte, Rodrigo. Voy a echar de menos," responded Beth Sellars, the great Seattle curator who heads Suyama Space. Good luck, Rodrigo. I'll miss you. "A fine young man," writer Jim Demetre wryly added. "I like his deportment."
In three quick years, Valenzuela has embedded himself in Seattle. He's generous and hardworking. In addition to solo and collaborative exhibitions this year, he spent the summer in residence at Skowhegan (in Maine), completed a traveling performance roaming from campus to campus along the University of California system while making site-specific videos and displaying them along the way (with Yumeko Hill), and journeyed into the freaky fracking culture of North Dakota to help artist Susie Lee, herself a Genius Award winner, make new work about her transformed home state.
In a recent panel conversation called "Why We Make Things" at Town Hall, Valenzuela was asked why he became an artist. There was art school, he said, but he equally credited watching the repetitive labor of his father, a mailman, and grandfather, a carpenter, plus "hours and hours and hours" of TV and movies dubbed from Hollywood, which were something like magazine-cut-out ransom notes rather than smooth illusions.
"Pinochet really helped, too," Valenzuela said, the dictator's censorship obvious and instructional even to a child just looking to understand words and pictures. Now Valenzuela makes videos and photographs about being located and dislocated.
The slide show during the Genius Awards ceremony flashed images by all three finalists before the winner was announced—the subversively resisting bodies of Matthew Offenbacher's openhearted paintings and writings; the intense, bright spirits of Sherry Markovitz's talismanic paintings and sculptures. The slides of Valenzuela's work were some of his portraits of people existing on the borders of documentary and fiction—people like him, and the rest of this city of old transplants and new natives all mixed up together.