The Chilean-born Seattle artist’s first solo show at the Frye Art Museum, using photography and video, critiques social issues and examines the various meanings of the word “ruins.”

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“F uture Ruins” is such an evocative title for an exhibit that you might wonder how any artist could possibly live up to it.

But Seattle-based Rodrigo Valenzuela, in his first solo museum show, pulls it off.

Valenzuela’s stated aim, he said in a recent interview at the Frye, is to examine “the aesthetic of the ruin” without actually depicting any specific ruins.


‘Future Ruins: Rodrigo Valenzuela’

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, through April 26, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; (206-622-9250 or

Related events: “Moving Towards Future Ruin?” panel discussion with Valenzuela, Rosalinda Aguirre and Verlene Jones-Davis, moderated by Negarra A. Kudumu, 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, and “Future Ruins: Rodrigo Valenzuela” gallery talk with the artist, 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1.

One inspiration was Seattle, a city where buildings are coming down at such a rate that their empty shells scarcely register before a shiny high-rise takes their place. But even these flashy new structures, Valenzuela notes in his press statement, “contain the seeds of ruin.”

Carefully preserved archaeological sites in Latin America and Europe also shaped his vision. Their value as cultural touchstones, he feels, is in sharp contrast to abandoned buildings in contemporary U.S. cities like Detroit or Pittsburgh where ruins are “just indicative of economic failure.”

Memories of earthquake damage in his native Chile when he was a boy influenced him as well, and many of his photographic constructions in the show resemble images of quake-wrecked buildings.

Although Valenzuela uses photography and video in his work, he’s anything but a straightforward documentarian. In “Hedonic Reversal,” an installation that occupies a whole gallery at the Frye, 17 archival pigment prints on Dibond (an aluminum composite material) are mounted on scaffolding that surrounds the viewer. The walls of the gallery itself are covered in graphite-and-ink imagery that echoes the content of his multilayered photographs.

Each photograph is a variation on the same subject: crumbling structures that Valenzuela built in his studio using Styrofoam, plaster and wood. The images suggest pale edifices succumbing to time’s ravages. In the plaster dust, Valenzuela’s boot-prints evoke a human presence in otherwise unpopulated scenes. The result is a playfully creative dilapidation: construction and demolition site rolled into one.

Valenzuela shoots his crumbling structures on film first and then makes large-scale digital scans of the filmed images. Gradually, he builds up photographic layers in which his “ruins” grow ever more elaborate. The final result, he stresses, is not about a single, particular moment.

“You can see the past and the future of the images within each image,” he says. “The time, the decay, is within the image also.”

Stand in the middle of “Hedonic Reversal” and you’ll be immersed in Valenzuela’s mind — both his foreground thoughts (the photographs that the scaffolding thrusts out toward you) and his background ruminations (the illustrated gallery walls half-concealed behind the scaffolding).

His explanation of the piece’s title: “Hedonic reversal is a psychological condition that gives you pleasure out of pain. So, for example, if you like chili peppers or if you like to watch sad movies … then you have hedonic reversal.”

The installation itself, while far from painful, is felicitously thorny and disorienting.

The rest of the show deals in moving images.

“El Sisofo” (“Sisyphus”) is a three-channel video installation accompanied by recordings of a sports-coach’s pep talk. Two of its screens depict cleanup crews in a sports stadium after the game. A third screen shows one of those cleaners drawing a stadium-like image on a chalkboard.

“He is drawing his life,” Valenzuela explains. “He is drawing his job.”

In “Maria TV,” 15 Hispanic women portray domestic workers who use dialogue from a telenovela to express their real passions and frustrations. In the process, soap-opera artifice becomes an unlikely vehicle for feminist protest.

Here, as in all of “Future Ruins,” Valenzuela delivers a social critique with a heady twist.