Porcelain Perfect

From toasters to vacuums—Shalene Valenzuela's wild 'domestic art' fools the eye as well as the mind
Porcelain Perfect
Women seem to be dishing the dirt, as Shalene Valenzuela suggests here in 'Suck it Up: Ears are Burning.'

Ceramicist Shalene Valenzuela's art often begins not in her studio but out in the real world.

There, she hunts through thrift shops for discarded domestic objects whose forms, connotations, and mysteries suggest something to her about how a past we wish would remain in the past continues to bedevil us to this day.

At first glance Shalene's art seems humorous, joyous even: scenes of women with ruby red lips, expertly applied eyeliner and plucked eyebrows, hair in short bobs, the occasional bouffant, or with some remarkable bangs.

These women, engaged in evocative doings, decorate the surface of what appear to be toasters, vacuums, and other tools of the traditional housewife's trade.

Porcelain Perfect
Shalene Valenzuela, known in Missoula, Montana, for her vintage flair, creates work showing well-coiffed, apparently well-adjusted women from the mid-century. But there is always a mystery.

"Shalene is so witty, and her work is so surprising," says Renee Brown, a Missoula, Montana, ceramicist with a very different style who once shared a studio with Shalene. "It just invites you in, and it surprises you."

Shalene's women smile much of the time, suggesting a sort of mid-20th century bliss that came from caring for husbands and children. (The husbands and children are never shown.)

But could Shalene be fooling us about that?

She is certainly fooling us about the objects that she decorates with her mini narratives. All are made of slip cast clay in a mode of art-making dubbed trompe l'oeil ('fool the eye'), which goes back at least to Zeuxis, in ancient Greece, whose painting of grapes was so realistic, it fooled hungry birds.

Porcelain Perfect
Shoes, as in Shalene's 'By Any Stretch of the Imagination II' (above left), are seen frequently in her work. Her 'Potholder' series (above right) uses clay to create a seeming textile.

"I love the cheeky humor in her art of domestic things," says Lisa Simon, owner with her husband of Radius Gallery in Missoula, where Shalene, though California born and bred, has become a leader of the arts scene.

Simon has close to a dozen of Shalene's works in her home, including one in the form of a nail polish container. Shalene's ceramic toasters and other household appliances may be simulacra of the real things, but in Simon's home they function, both visually and imaginatively, as the real things.

"It's well placed around my home for moments of levity," Simon says. "The toaster is over by my [real] toaster, and the nail polish is in the bathroom. One of her rotary dial phones is hanging where a phone would be."

  Porcelain Perfect
Are these women in violation on Shalene's 'Meter Mai' series?

Sandra Henderson, a Missoula collector, has about 15 of Shalene's works, some in what Henderson calls "my feminist bathroom," which began with the first piece she bought by Shalene. Works by other artists are there too.

"With slip casting," says Henderson, "Shalene made a kind of old-time scale you would step on, and there would be numbers from zero pounds to about 300 pounds."

But rather than guilt-trip women about their weight, Shalene's scale, Henderson says, only gives women two measurements: "Perfect, perfect."

"That really cracks me up," Henderson says.

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