Fredric Koeppel reviews Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Frontiers on The Commercial Appeal 9.22.16
The Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art launch the new exhibition season with a pair of shows that approach two contemporary issues. The first, from Chilean-born, Houston-based artist Rodrigo Valenzuela, is “Frontiers,” and the concerns are borders and fences, alien landscapes, exile and the hunger for work and prosperity. The second, “Infoxication,” deals with notions of information overload and the pervasive nature of audio and visual technology and social media in contemporary culture. The artist is Ruben Garnica, a recent bachelor of fine arts graduate from the University of Memphis who was awarded this solo exhibition by vote of the art department faculty.
With the ascendency of Donald Trump to the position of Republican nominee for president, the idea of some kind of impermeable fence along the border between the United States and Mexico and the demonization of Mexican immigrants have gained avid currency. What is forgotten in these controversies is that the undocumented people who cross the border are human beings, not anonymous or inherently dangerous foreigners, who more often than not are fleeing poverty or violence propelled by corruption and drug wars.
Valenzuela addresses these issues in a spare and deeply moving exhibition that consists of two videos and four two-dimensional pieces on canvas or, in one instance, on drywall. The latter works — toner, acrylic and chalk in shades of gray — chart desolate, desert-like landscapes in which those who journey across them would be lost and hopeless. The barren nature of the geography, bisected by chalk lines with the rigidity of a map, seems to mirror the struggle for opportunity and the emptiness of possibility. The largest of these works, at 8-by-12 feet, was a collaboration between the artist and 100 U of M students over a three-day workshop; Valenzuela donated it to the gallery.
The most affecting of the videos is the black-and-white “Diamond Box,” slightly longer than four minutes. Valenzuela interviewed workers waiting to pick up odd jobs in a Home Depot parking lot and asked them — paying them an hourly rate — to talk about their experiences crossing the border and with the border patrol. (The artist himself was an undocumented worker in the United States.) The camera focuses on the sad and weary faces of the men as their words scroll across the bottom of the screen.
Across the corridor — the Fogelman Galleries are divided into two large spaces — Garnica’s “Infoxication” presents an entirely different aura than the stark display in “Frontiers.” The term is a synonym for “information overload” but means not merely an inundation of data but the inability to make rational decisions because of the pervasive debilitating abundance. In the darkened gallery, the two “Mitote” pieces stand out in a glowing, pulsing pastel radiance, coral-like sea creatures. Composed of PVC, LED lights and concealed speakers, the various tubes issue constant murmurs that overlay one another, as if the viewer were at a party (“mitote ” means noise, party or gossip) and subject to a relentless, confusing hubbub. The effect is much stronger at this almost subliminal level than if the speakers were blasting out barrages of decibels.
“Infoxication,” a form of intoxication, I suppose, includes several other pieces and a striking video projected through bulbous glass towers that create shadows and reflections on the wall. Altogether, this exhibition and Valenzuela’s “Frontiers,” each existing at the boundaries of their concerns, create their own kind of brilliance and hypnotic beauty.
Rodrigo Valenzuela, “Frontiers,” through Oct. 14.
Ruben Garnica, “Infoxication,” through Sept. 9.
Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art, University of Memphis, Art & Communication Building, 3715 Central. Call 901-678-3052, or visit memphis.edu/fogelman.