- Courtesy of the artist
- This image is from Rodrigo Valenzuela's new series, Hedonic Reversal. We looked up hedonic reversal, and it means that a pain, like a chili pepper or a horror movie, suddenly becomes a pleasure. Valenzuela has a solo exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in January, but where's all the other love?
What gives, Seattle art power brokers? You dropped the ball on Rodrigo Valenzuela. The Chilean-born artist whose photography and video plays on the borders of documentary and fiction got a little attention during the four years he lived here, but nothing significant from the heavy hitters at local museums and among philanthropists, grantmakers, dealers, and collectors. He was even shunned by the approachable local funder Artist Trust—until winning its second biggest award, for $25,000, the Arts Innovator Award in Visual Arts of 2014, just recently announced. The award is funded by the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation.
Now he's doing a prestigious yearlong residency in Houston that's helping him bypass Seattle and connect directly to important and smart curators across the country. What gives, Seattle power brokers?
Here's an edited e-mail interview with Valenzuela. I'll be back in the coming days with another interview with artist Clyde Petersen, this year's other Innovator winner.
What does this particular award mean to you as opposed to any other?
The particular importance of this award for me is that I applied to [Artist Trust's] GAP grant around six or seven times.
Wait, what? When you say you applied six or seven times to the GAP grant, do you mean you never got it? They give, like, 60 of them every year!
Yes. This is the first time I won anything from Artist Trust. And the  Stranger Genius Award was the first time I won something in Seattle. That was not true when I was 20—I won a video art award and I used the money to leave Chile.
Another aspect of receiving a big award with a "big name" is in the context of this year's Betty Bowen Award winner, Ralph Pugay. It is great to feel that Seattle will give this kind of recognition to young artists who will make more and/or better work with this large amount of money. I know Ralph very well, and in my case and his, I know that the money will not go to make house payments, send our kids to college, or buy a new car. You will be able to see this award as work or career changes.
This year I also got the Texas Contemporary Award ($10k). This award was particularly nice because the curator from the Hammer Museum [Anne Ellegood] and the curator from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston [Bill Arning] gave me their vote, support, and encouragement after feeling underappreciated personally and professionally. Then, the Innovator and Texas awards just give me the financial stability and the feeling that I can truly impress Seattle with Future Ruins, my upcoming show at the Frye. (By the way, this is hilarious.)
What do you think "innovation" means?
I don't know. It's kind of a pretentious title, but we have real innovators in Seattle that haven't gotten this award, so... I want to innovate within my capacities and practice. I want to engage people visually and intellectually. For example, my new series Hedonic Reversal—I don't know if I like it yet, but I love that the images make me think different things, that I don't see photography like that around me. They are interesting images that are also not "good photography."
"Not 'good photography'"?
I mean that I think of them as documentary photography, but in the same way that Romantic painters painted landscapes without going out. The photographs' richness is in their flaws.
You're spending this year as a Core Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. How do you like Houston? Do you have representation there? You aren't represented in Seattle at Bryan Ohno Gallery anymore, correct? The new CEO at Artech was recently quoted saying that not enough collectors support Seattle art galleries, which makes the gallery component the weakest link between museums, galleries, and artists in Seattle. Do you agree?
Houston is the place I have my studio is all. I still have an address in Seattle, pay taxes, car registration, etc. But there is a big change in how people treat you.
At the Texas Contemporary, I showed the same work I showed at Bryan's gallery plus two new pieces, and they sold for four times more than in Seattle. People here are looking at the work, not my age or how long I have lived in town. The museum wants to get the new work—this never could happen in Seattle, since "I am not ready" in the eyes of Seattle Art Museum or the Henry Art Gallery.
Has Catharina [Manchanda, curator at SAM] or Luis [Croquer, curator at the Henry] done any studio visits with local artists under 40? Or maybe you have to be on their good side, I don't know. Liz Brown will show up. Beth Sellars will show up. But the SAM and Henry curators will not pop into, like, Blindfold Gallery to see the art. The Frye does a much better job at understanding contemporary culture and the community around it.
About representation: The reason I am represented exclusively by Upfor [in Portland] now is that Theo Downes understands what young artists need. He took me on a solo adventure to the Texas Contemporary and I won their award. Now, we are going to Untitled Miami and Onestar Press is publishing a book about my work.
Theo creates opportunities for visibility and exposure regardless of instant economic success. Playing the long game is what a gallery needs to do with artists like me or Ralph. He helps me by applying or looking for opportunities. He understands there's benefit to me focusing on working in the studio. That is the difference between Seattle galleries and a nicer gallery.
I sound angry, but I am not. It is funny how much people don't care about art in Seattle. Even people who work in the arts. We have to do a better job in keeping people like Sol Hashemi in town. [Hashemi now lives in New York as much as Seattle.]
What other artists would you like to see come forward in Seattle?
I wish someone would punch Neal Fryett in the face and get him to wake up and participate. Neal is great for many reasons. He is thoughtful and smart, he knows about many more things besides art, he is hardworking and respectful of his materials and the world around him. Neal is direct and honest, which is a weird attitude in the art world—but maybe that is why he is not participating as much as he should. In general, his values and brain have my deepest admiration, I just wish he could stop being such a hermit.
There are a lot of artists in Seattle, but nothing is going to happen until places like the New Foundation stop giving studio visits with curators from out of town to just their friends. I try helping and collaborating, but it is also really hard to created solid groups, or find people who are into helping each other.
Anything else you want to add about being in Houston?
I am learning a lot and eating well at rich people's houses, but I still miss Linda's burger.