Shalene Valenzuela Ceramics

Beneath the shiny veneer of these relics hides a complex and sometimes contradicting truth of what things seem to appear as upon first glance.

–Shalene Valenzuela

Writer: Tahlia Aghily

Editor: Allen Yi

October 1 2020

It is clear that much of Valenzuela’s visual inspiration comes from 50s American housewife culture. Her imagery seems as if it jumped straight out of advertisements, film stills, cookbooks, and family photos one might find in a typical 50s household. Beneath these idyllic, rosy scenes, however, is a more complicated truth. When we realize there is more than meets the eye, Valenzuela challenges us to question the beliefs, practices, and norms of a time not so long ago.

Valenzuela’s porcelain sculptures of household objects depict scenes of women fulfilling their “wifely duties”. This achieves a literal objectification; the interweaving of object and subject suggests that the woman and her tools are one and the same. The women are painted, not sculpted; they are less complex, less interesting, less dimensional than the three-dimensional objects on which they are depicted. Of course, these sentiments don’t reflect the opinions of Valenzuela. Biting her tongue, she holds a mirror up to what were commonly-held sentiments just 60 years ago.

Perhaps Valenzuela’s most interesting choice is what she chooses to sculpt. Blenders, hammers, mixing bowls, and portable vacuums are tools of convenience designed to make life easier around the house. They suggest accomplishment, ease of life, or the creation of a home. The images painted upon them create a narrative that takes place within such contexts. Valenzuela is commenting on the integral part of the postwar era – its obsession with consumerism and how we covet objects and our relationship with them.

It would be easy for Valenzuela to simply paint directly onto actual irons, telephones, and vacuum cleaners. Indeed, there is a good reason why she spends hours in the studio creating them out of ceramic. They are beautifully crafted and from afar look like actual, functional household products. This trompe l’oeil tricks the eye, making commentary on the 1950s golden era of advertising. What appears to be a vacuum is actually clay. Like in advertising, there is a difference between the actual product and what is attempted to be sold to the viewer.

Valenzuela is known for working in series. From afar, her famous ironing boards might look similar but upon closer inspection we find that they are each uniquely crafted with care. Valenzuela often uses molds to reproduce the same shape of her series’ object. This is helpful on a practice level but also works conceptually. She is molding objects that are household or commercial items – of pots, toasters, hammers, etc. They themselves were created from molds, so by using this technique, she mirrors the nature of mass production in which the objects were conceived. This is the kind of attention to detail that makes Valenzuela’s work feel so faithful to its source material.

This idea of mass produced goods is more salient now than ever. Today, consumers are forced to shell out cash to huge corporations because products are designed to break and be repurchased time and time again. The principles of design in the 1950s however led to more durable, well-crafted goods. They were constructed mindfully with care and made to last a lifetime. Similarly, each of Valenzuela’s pieces are painstakingly perfected. She spends hours hunched over her telephones and irons, detailing the surface with tiny paint brushes. This contradictory nature of her work–mass produced, yet perfectly unique–reveals that this artist is deeply contemplative about the conceptual nature of her work.

More on Shalene Valenzuela

Shalene Valenzuela was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She received a BA in Art Practice at the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA in Ceramics from California College of Arts and Crafts. In 2007, she moved from her longtime home of Oakland, CA to participate in a long-term residency at The Clay Studio of Missoula. She currently maintains a studio in the historic Brunswick Building and serves as the executive director at The Clay Studio of Missoula.

Shalene Valenzuela was recently featured on Ceramics Monthly Magazine for the month of October, 2020. To read the article, click here.

Upcoming Workshop

This month, on October 10th, join Shalene Valenzuela for an online ceramic workshop where she will take participants through a step-by-step process on how she creates her one-of-a-kind narrative slipcase works. Topics will include slip casting and altering of forms and the process of developing imagery on bisqueware that utilizes drawing, painting, and screen painting techniques.

Register Here