Northwest Notes: Dispatch from the Pacific
The Pacific Northwest is beautiful this time of year. I travel there every few years and typically end up in the area during summer, missing the rain for which it’s infamous. This year I visited Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, seeing a lot of the gallery and museum scene. The Seattle Art Fair ran during the start of August. It’s mostly a small-ish regional fair, though there were booths by Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, Zürcher, James Cohan, and other New Yorkers. I skipped it though, having a kind of snooty distaste for those conventions. I mean, who in their right mind would want to attend an art fair? Oof.
So I went straight for the regional institutions. There’s a lot to see. First: The Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. It’s set in the city’s hip and young U district, and it’s a smartly designed, well organized space. They show emerging and established artists in a variety of media. They do not have a large space, so there aren’t clusters of galleries with an expansive selection from their permanent collection. Instead, they have well-curated exhibitions and I had just missed the school’s MFA exhibition, which runs for a month, rather than the week that many New York students get.
On view while I was there was, among other things, Martin Creed’s Work No. 360: About half the air in a given space (2015), which was comprised of a large gallery filled almost to capacity by silver balloons. Visitors could enter through one of two doorways and push their way through the claustrophobic mass, being disoriented and kind of pleasantly bewildered by the balloons’ power to constrict and delight. Also on view: a handsome retrospective for photographer Ilse Bing, a show of un-stretched and shaped canvases by Allan McCollum and Karen Carson, and a solo show by Michelle Handelman, with video and photography conflating vampirism, psychotherapy, and class-and-queer antagonism. The video draws from a Silent-Film-era series about Parisian thieves, called The Vampires, so one can forgive Handelman’s melodrama. It’s richly textured in a fetishistic way, and the accompanying photographs are exciting.
A few days later I took the train down to Portland, where I met up with artcritical contributor, publishing magnate, and poet extraordinaire Paul Maziar, and his friends, who showed me the nightlife — great host and hostesses. We remarked on the aesthetic qualities in the bright redness of neon lights adorning one of the construction cranes which has been expanding the city of late. Maziar’s been consuming Marcel Duchamp, so we say, “Sure, why not? Call it industrial-scale readymade sculpture.”
Next morning I left my kind hosts and took a long walk into downtown of the beautiful city, finishing up at the Portland Art Museum. The institution is currently hosting Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010), which is displayed among the museum’s many galleries of Asian art and artifacts. The suite of 12 animal heads represents the Chinese calendrical zodiac, and is based on a sculpture formerly of an imperial garden outside Beijing, designed by Europeans, used by the Chinese elite, then looted by French soldiers in 1860. The scale and craftsmanship of Weiwei’s sculpture is spectacular, however, despite the didactics, I got the sense that I was missing something pretty fundamental about the subtleties of the artist’s choice of representation. Is it something about the Chinese government’s complicated relationship to Weiwei, to the nation’s own history, and the waves of European colonization and Chinese reclamation in these images? I can’t tell.
The aforementioned Asian art and artifacts galleries are really top rate. The layout of the building is labyrinthine, which can vary the experience between excited discovery and a confused, lost feeling.
Another exhibition, “Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris,” collects more than 140 paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the school, from between the 15th and 19th centuries. I can have a hard time with some of the flowery, academic work that the institution produced and inspired, but it’s hard to argue with some of the works on view in this show. Albrecht Dürer’s The Vision of the Seven Candlesticks (ca. 1498), kind of made my jaw drop a little. And PAM also has a great selection of Modern and contemporary work, including a selection, on view now, of reductivist work by Robert Mangold, Dorothea Rockburne, Judy Chicago, John McCracken, and others — stuff that really gets me going. And there’s a large display of photographs, which the museum calls a “Fotofolio,” by Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Edward and Brett Weston and Minor White. Their silver gelatin prints of the American West made me wish to flee New York and find an abandoned mission on top of a mountain.
Also there, now closed, was a show of David Hockney’s print suite, A Rake’s Progress (1975), along with a set of prints by William Hogarth, made in 1733, on which Hockney’s sequence is based.
Full from Portland, I went back to Seattle. I took a breather and went to the Seattle Art Museum, at which the main attraction is currently “Disguise: Masks and Global African Currents,” which was a kind of unremarkable show about artists using the imagery of African masks in their work. The hanging was gimmicky and impoverished, and several of the artists felt slight and arbitrary (no Keith Sonnier?). But, next to it was a great, like, really out of sight display of actual African masks, along with archival footage of performers at a carnival in the Côte d’Ivoire. That stuff is way more exciting and intellectually engaging than much of the show’s contemporary work.
As well, a small but nonetheless excellent show, called “The Duchamp Effect,” rounded up post-War artists making use of Duchamp’s innovations. There was a lot of toilet humor and pointing at contradictions between image, language, and actuality. One very smart touch was the inclusion of a photograph by Louise Lawler, showing two artworks in a collector’s home. Lawler’s photograph shared gallery space with the two artworks it pictures: a painting by Jasper Johns and a sculpture by James Rosenquist.
I left Seattle’s piney metropolis for an excursion north, to Vancouver. Even Canada’s border is beautiful, with enormous gunnera unfurling at the edges of Peace Arch border-crossing park, and a sculpture by Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han — a billboard-like form of negative space overlooking the Pacific inlet there. A few minutes away, Vancouver is a really, really pretty city, seemingly compacted into the natural concavity of the Salish Sea’s coast. There are tall skyscrapers, the city is sparklingly clean, and I arrived immediately after Pride weekend, with festive banners and the debris of feather boas all over the place. I mean, it’s a really beautiful city. And in Canada, HBO has its own regional programming, including mandated indigenous programs and movies, which are very cool and sort of an entertaining (if small) gesture at reconciliation after hundreds of years of genocide and oppression. I liked the movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013). It’s good.
There, I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is hosting an enormous retrospective of Canadian sculptor Geoffrey Farmer, “How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth?” I found myself thinking about Farmer’s tremendous archivist spirit, collecting and combining the pieces of National Geographic back issues, fiberglass sculptures, bits of signs, notes, tapes, vehicles, and all sorts of other things. It brought me back to a perpetual question in an era of explosive image production and distribution: is cataloguing and organizing one of the best strategies for an artist trying to cope, resist, or flow with such proliferation? I think probably yes. One small room held an archive of artist lectures and interviews on cassette tape, and invited visitors to sit and listen awhile.
On the ground floor was a great “show,” a display of works on paper from the museum’s collection, a trifle compared to the offerings that will be on view following the institution’s addition of a new space, designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The works on paper, over a hundred on one large wall, were intended to entice viewers to see the benefits of the costly and overdue expansion. The next gallery over showed work from another collection in “Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums,” with a handsome selection of paintings covering a spectacular historical range, while still appearing intellectually clear and to the point. Upstairs was a group show in several spaces, each artist given their own gallery. Called “Residue: The Persistence of the Real,” this exhibition of documentary photography studies the way that history is retained in images, as in Catherine Opie’s beautiful shots of Liz Taylor’s home and Geoffrey James’s absolutely just mind-blowing shots of Canada’s infamous Kingston Penitentiary, where inmates decorated the walls of their cells so ornately they could be mistaken for contemporary installation art.
Down the street, the Bill Reid Gallery shares the history and importance of First Nations’ arts, with a permanent display of work by Reid, one of Canada’s most famous contemporary indigenous craftsmen. Likewise, the museum promotes the continuing traditions of local tribes, including live, free-form Q & A with an artist working in the atrium. Sean Whonnock was there when I visited, and he told me a lot about the construction of regional iconography, about the craftsmanship of these artworks, his own life, and the traditions of his family and tribe. There’s a lot of great indigenous art and craft all over, and most of these museums had great collections, sustaining cultures that were almost completely wiped out during the preceding centuries.
Finally, back in Seattle, I hit up the city’s monthly First Thursday art walk, down at historic Pioneer Square. The galleries are, in many ways, like those in New York and anywhere else in the world: there are some you’d like to spend a lot of time in, others not so much. One major difference is the organization of openings, all on the same Thursday, with plenty of white and red wines, food, and live music. Totally alien, right? The atmosphere is festive and people are out to enjoy the scene, rather than trying to make the scene. I was taken by Greg Kucera Gallery, which had a diverse collection of works on view by self-taught artists, including Gee’s Bend quilts, Henry Darger paintings, drawings by James Castle and Bill Traylor, and so on. In the back was a show by Gregory Blackstock, who is autistic and creates large mixed-media drawings cataloguing all kinds of incidentals: dictionary definitions, sheepshank knots, flags of the world, rottweiler breeds. Blackstock was in attendance and was more open in his discussing his work than any New York artist you’ve ever met.
The whole trip, whirlwind that it was, showed me some new favorite art spots on the left coast. If you’re in the area, you’d be foolish to pass them up.