Several years ago, curators from museums in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver began laying plans for an ambitious survey show of West Coast art, the first of its kind. In selecting artists for the show, curators put special emphasis on finding contemporary work that reflected in some way the particular culture and geography of the west. The resulting exhibit, Baja to Vancouver, is having its premiere at the Seattle Art Museum. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
In one respect, the curators who assembled Baja to Vancouver have clearly succeeded. What is conventionally thought of as West Coast — and more particularly Southern California - culture comes across loud and clear, for better or worse. There are works that focus on film and sports celebrities, pop stars and music videos. There are various takes on surfing, glamour, and even the pornographic movie industry of the San Fernando Valley. The Andy Warhol of Southern California art, Ed Ruscha, is everywhere in evidence, earnestly imitated by at least three of the participants, and in the back of the minds of many more.
On the other hand, the curators have a problem. In their efforts to find artists who both reference place in their work and satisfy the requirements of geographical, ethnic and gender balance, they have included a good deal of art that isn’t very good. And, in far too many cases, the more banal or inept the piece, the higher the compensatory level of curatorial rhetoric that accompanies it.
We are told, for example, that a dull and pretentiously mounted home video of a surfboard floundering in the waves “summons the great tragedies of undelivered utopian ideals.” The phrase “We are all in this together” mounted on the wall, “transforms the gallery space… into an endless and sublime panorama.” And that giant “Welcome to Vancouver” sign, a replica of the original so faithful that it was even made by the Vancouver highway department? It “raises questions…about the limits to our conventional representations of urban identities.”
In line with the Westward Ho! spirit of the show, one imagines that the authors of these seductive but highly dubious claims spent a previous life promoting dry oil wells in Texas, or vending retirement plots in the Mojave.
Fortunately, there is other work present that is quite strong enough to need no critical puffery. High on that list would be the photographs of local artist Glenn Rudolph. His horrific black and white panorama of Stampede Pass features a tiny house trailer huddling for dear life below scalped mountains and monstrous power lines. In perfect counterpoint, the sky above is a filled with dramatic, billowing clouds — like a relic of the untamed West of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.
Also well-known to Seattle audiences is Portland artist Michael Brophy, whose large and laconic paintings devoted to the forest industry are here a pleasure to encounter. "Forest Room" is both simple to look at and decisive in its impact. From the window of a snug, timbered cabin, we view row upon row of clear cut hills, the source, of course, of the wood from which the cabin was built. The ecological scorecard? Man, and his faux-rustic lifestyle: 1; Nature and its web of life: 0.
Also, a highlight is the work of Los Angeles painter Brian Calvin, clearly a fan of East Coast portrait artist Alex Katz. Calvin peoples his flat, incisive paintings with conflicted-looking 20-somethings, their world a cartoon landscape of well-furnished apartments or rural arcadias, their actions seemingly aimless and disconnected.
Several of the videos are also standouts, particularly Kota Ezawa’s oddly gripping animated reenactment of the climax of the first O.J. Simpson trial, and Tim Lee’s hilarious deadpan version of a Beastie Boys rap song, in which the artist, without music or inflection, plays all three parts.
The best in show award, however, clearly belongs to Vancouver artist Brian Jungen, whose amazing simulation of a whale skeleton built of plastic deck chairs recently made the rounds of local museums. Here, his recreations of tribal masks and wall hangings using cut up Nike sneakers are startling, magical, and provoking, work which manages to both reference hot contemporary issues like consumer culture and colonialism, and still be successful as art. A show composed entirely of work on this level would really be worth waxing poetic about.