Shalene Valenzuela: Believe It Or Not

by Susannah Israel

“CAA artist’s work is provocative social commentary.”

“Don’t believe everything you see.”   Quite sensible advice, especially when viewing the work of ceramic artist Shalene Valenzuela.  Her intricate work has its roots in the trompe l’oeil art tradition of visual illusion.  Trompe l’oeil, from the French for “trick the eye”, derives from card play, where a hidden trump card wins the hand.  The genre begins in painting;  Albrecht Durer placed a painted fly on the knee of the Madonna in Feast of the Rose Gardens, 1506,  inspiring this ‘art of deception.’  His work was so convincing that viewers attempted to brush the fly away. Valenzuela’s slip-cast, silk-screened ceramic creations can often baffle viewers who just can’t tell if it’s real.

The artist has exceptional command of her materials, recreating common household objects in clay with uncanny fidelity. Valenzuela deftly employs her unique array of techniques and philosophy to produce thoughtful and challenging work, drawing upon contemporary practices of appropriation, surrealism, and pop art history. Wickedly humorous social satire is the result.

Valenzuela studied image transfer on ceramics with Richard Shaw at the University of California, Berkeley.   Shaw is well known for his liminal work in cast porcelain, which established him as a pioneer in the use of trompe l’oeil in ceramic art.  Committed to the use of clay as his medium, Shaw is also known for celebrating the clay material while making the point.   “My slip cast forms are not merely canvases – they are an integral part in what makes the narrative complete,” says Valenzuela.   UC Berkeley’s substantial place in ceramic art history also includes the teaching of Marilyn Levine,  (1935-2005) whose modernist take on trompe l’oeil deals with the physical presence of the object.  Levine is known for her hyper-real clay constructions, intricate, meticulously executed works which appear to be actual leather jackets, shoes and bags.

Slip casting and silk-screening have in common an absence of evidence of the artist’s hand, according to Andy Warhol, who preferred silk-screening for this reason.  Robert Rauschenberg, introduced to silk-screening by Warhol, liked the feeling associated with replicated images, “ bringing old associations to new experience.” [1]    These meticulous techniques allow Valenzuela to deliver precisely the images we are preconditioned to recognize.

Valenzuela has situated her work soundly within this history.  “I reflect upon issues,” she says.  Her topics are social expectations, cultural precepts, and diverse urban legends. Valenzuela’s everyday people aspire to embody the roles and behaviors that promise acceptance, social status and wealth as a result.  The perfect American life is recorded with clay replicas of mass-produced, common objects.  Anyone can buy them.  They are familiar to both the eye and the hand.  Glue bottles, pencil sharpeners, laundry soap, pencil sharpeners, toasters, blenders – through the repetitive process of slip casting, you can “make a million” of them. [2]

“Stylistically, much of my imagery is pulled from sources around the 1950’s era. Through advertising, common objects were embraced in the most royal fashion, and through television and print, images of the “perfect Americana life” were portrayed,” comments Valenzuela.  Richard Shaw also speaks about his use of trompe l’oeil with slip-cast objects and printed images as a comment about consumer mentality:  “Buy! Buy! Buy!  [3]

The regal presentation of objects is inherently linked to the creation of desire and the imposition of a consumer value system.  Advertising and art meet in the work of the Pop artists, as we see in the late fifties and sixties. “Nobility and grandeur are bestowed on the commonplace: pop bottles and soup cans, ice cream cones and hamburgers… the trivia and paraphernalia of our contemporary world are presented as symbols of our culture.” [4]   Says Valenzuela, “I feel this imagery reaches back to the core of the advertising age, and the ideals founded then still apply to how people strive to live today. I feel even in those times when there was a shiny veneer put upon things, there was always something that it was glossing over.”

Now why would Valenzuela want to look beneath the glossy veneer of American perfect culture?  According to Laura Molina, there is a particular complexity about the  multicultural perspective of Mexican Americans versus the media: “In a culture where nothing happens until it happens on TV, I don’t exist.  As an educated, native-born, English-speaking, fifth-generation Mexican American, there is almost no reflection of me  on television.” [5]   Valenzuela also talks about her early experience with visual culture through personal family images:  “When I was young, I looked at old family photos constantly and conjured up this ideal life my parents had grown up in. As I grew older, and learned the complexities and the contradiction of reality to my innocent childhood impression, I found the idea that a still cheerful image can disguise so many layers beneath.”

Certainly the assumed malleability of the consumer is quite evident whenever 1950’s advertising agencies focused on women.   “Domesticity was idealized in the media, most married women walked down the aisle by age 19.   A majority of brides were pregnant within seven months of their wedding.”   There was also a subterranean political agenda. “Embedded in the propaganda of the time was the idea that the nuclear family made Americans superior to the Communists.  So American propaganda showed the horrors of Communism in the lives of Russian women, shown dressed in gunnysacks, toiling in drab factories, while their children were placed in cold, anonymous daycare centers. In contrast to the “evils” of Communism, an image was promoted of American women, with their feminine hairdos and delicate dresses, tending to the hearth and home as they enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, democracy, and freedom.” [6]

Close reading of Shalene Valenzuela’s works reveals how the artist has juxtaposed images to overturn our expectations by using humor and surprise.   A recognizable ceramic blender, for example, seems just the right size and shape to appear in any kitchen.  Painted on the surface of this routine appliance are some women getting dressed.  But now we perceive these images in terms of the blender.  Female bodies are being laced up and buttoned down, shaped and cut to fit – in this case, by the sharp whirling blades of a blender.  Under this smiling, deceptive veneer of well-being is actually a horrifying version of homogeneity, accomplished by chopping everyone into small, indistinguishable bits, thus: “Blending In.”

Against the wall, a familiar schoolroom object makes clever reference to the American pedagogical practices of conformity, obedience to authority, and repression of individual behavior.  On a perfect porcelain pencil sharpener we see its user depicted, subtly reminding us that this student is also going to be whittled and processed, however painfully, and whatever the attendant risks, by future societal expectations and economic demand.

Valenzuela’s work effectively evokes ‘the union of frivolous form and serious subject.’ [7]  Her complex works exert a strong visual allure, attracting our inspection with narrative detail, brilliant surfaces, and familiar shapes. In this case, the trump card certainly wins the hand.  For these uncannily accurate replicas play upon our own expectations to subvert the very imagery we so readily recognize.   We find ourselves confronting the hidden power of visual manipulation and the pitfalls of facile assumption.  Shalene Valenzuela has an important message for us, which I read as follows:  “Don’t believe everything you think.”

by Susannah Israel








[1] Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. New York: Harry N Abrams. 1995

[2] Brody, Harvey. The Book of Lowfire Ceramics. New York: Holt, Rinehart. 1980

[3] Shekufenedeh, Claudia. Trompe L’Oeil. Davis, CA: John Natsoulas Press. 2008

[4] Hastie, Reid, and Christian Schmidt. Encounter With Art. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1979

[5] Sorell, Victor Alejandro.  Art Journal, Vol. 63 no. 2 (2004) 100-103, New York

[6] Public Broadcasting Online.  Women’s Roles in the 1950s.


[7] Mathieu, Paul. Sex Pots. London: AC Publishers Ltd. 2003

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>