Life patterns 

Things are not as they seem with Shalene Valenzuela's ceramics

Shalene Valenzuela takes apart telephones and vacuum cleaners. Once the object is in pieces, she plasters each part and casts it in clay. The phone—she uses an old-fashioned model with a cradle and cord—is a singular object, but it requires three separate molds: receiver, body and cord. After she's fired each piece, she fits them back together as to-scale porcelain replicas of the domestic objects.

"In the mold-making process things get destroyed a lot," she says, laughing. "But I end up being kind of an engineer."

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Valenzuela learned her technique at UC Berkeley under the tutelage of Richard Shaw, whose ceramic sculptures were meant to trick the viewer into thinking it was the real thing. The slip cast process Valenzuela now uses is a relic of the 1950s and '60s when porcelain knickknacks were produced on a mass scale. In the spirit of that era, she paints images on her works of women performing domestic tasks and projecting the impression of homemaker bliss.

"I use colors that are in advertisements that draw people in," says Valenzuela, who teaches at Flathead Valley Community College and is executive director of the Clay Studio of Missoula. "I hope it catches their eye from far away and they come closer. Then, not only do they discover that all these things are made from clay, they realize the imagery isn't what they expect. Something is awry."

That something is usually slight—little indicators of dissatisfaction. She may alter the gestures or facial expressions of the women with an undertone of anxiety and frustration, despite the work's bright sheen.

"When I was a little kid I would sort through old photographs and memorabilia," Valenzuela says. "People talk about the good old days...and the '50s is always a prime example. You pick up that photo of everyone looking happy, but then you get the backstory and it's not what it seemed."

Valenzuela has never seen "Mad Men," but she's been told—"by a lot of people," she says—that she should. The AMC show is a fair parallel: Recall Betty Draper, in her perfectly coiffed blonde hair, shooting at birds from her front lawn in a fit of rebellion toward her stultifying suburban lifestyle. Scenes filled with cocktails, white-toothed smiles and the newest fads threaten to crack from the underlying emptiness that sometimes fills their lives. In other words, the manicured outside is only part of the story. That's how Valenzuela's pieces work, too.

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In her new exhibit at MAM, Following Patterns, Valenzuela has taken a slightly different approach from her usual large-scale domestic pieces. The room has more wall space than floor, which challenged her to come up with ways to make art that fits on walls. The exhibit showcases a couple of her telephones in a piece called "Let's Play Telephone," which nudges at her theme of mixed messages. But a large portion of the exhibit consists of dress patterns silkscreened on thin sheets of porcelain and, again, painted with images of women doing household duties. They are less three-dimensional, though no less challenging—the ceramic sheets tend to break easily, Valenzuela says. Playing with patterns is something she's wanted to do for a long time. When she was a kid she perused the fabric store with her mother, eyeing the patterns, touching fabrics, sorting through buttons. "I loved the ephemera of those things and I've always wanted to incorporate pattern paper into my work," she says. "The idea [in the exhibit] is that on these literal patterns are images of people who have fallen into life patterns."

As with "Mad Men," there isn't one message to glean from her work. The issues of identity and gender roles don't overpower. There's no hint of disdain in how she plays with what might be considered objects of oppression. In some ways, by playing with those objects, she gives them new, liberated identities.

"I wouldn't call myself an angry feminist," say Valenzuela, smiling. "A lot of people define themselves by their objects, but I do have this love and appreciation for the surface quality of things."

Shalene Valenzuela's Following Patterns is on display at MAM in the Shott Family Gallery.

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