Reports have it that real snow is a bit scarce at the Winter Olympics, but the artificial stuff is in plentiful supply at the Western Bridge exhibition space in Seattle, where a gigantic mountaintop diorama, complete with stuffed mountain goats, is the centerpiece of an intriguing exhibition by Los Angeles artist Euan MacDonald. KUOW's art critic Gary Faigin joins us with his review.
Commissioned by patrons Bill and Ruth True, the snow-covered precipice is designed to interact with its enclosing space in dramatic and provocative ways. When we first enter the gallery it presents the face of a threatening cliff, sheer and leaning over us as it rises; one is reminded of strolling beside the similarly imposing steel walls of Richard Serra’s "Wake" at the Olympic Sculpture Park, where the effect is macho-industrial, rather than faux-alpine.
A very different moment occurs when we leave the main space and look back; visually filling what is normally a broad, open entrance way is an solid wall of snow, as though the ice age had arrived and set up housekeeping in the parlor. Finally, when look over from the upstairs balcony, we find ourselves eye-to-eye with a staring mountain goat, its gaze either plaintive or quizzical, depending on one’s interpretation: “What are you in here for?” .
Interpretation, in fact, is a tricky issue with Macdonald’s mountain, since it is so deadpan as a statement. It is not didactic, or distressing, or particularly humorous, and it’s not meant to remind us of anything; it’s just odd and out of place and mildly entertaining – a spectacle. And it’s consistent with the bulk of the other works on view; Macdonald’s specialty is the odd juxtaposition of the man-made and the natural environment, colliding in incongruous and amusing ways. Like many of his contemporaries, Macdonald sees the environmental sky as falling, but he is calm about it, almost bemused, choosing a mood of irony rather than Armageddon, and using his skills as an object maker to keep us interested.
Macdonald’s pictorial skills (and downbeat take on the future) are abundantly evident in the group of ink drawings entitled "World Reversal." The piece depicts the gradual demise of a gleaming cruise ship as the waters of the world recede, the sort of epic catastrophe that contemporary Hollywood celebrates for its shock value. Unlike Tinseltown, Macdonald keeps his narrative low-key: his white ocean liner subtly discolors as the ocean level slowly drops, then more quickly begins to rust and disintegrate as it is deposited on the now-dry ocean floor. The hull crumbles, plants disappear, and then nothing is left but desert and sky. Macdonald has an appealing visual imagination, and his descriptive language is spontaneous, clear, and concise; he tweaks the viewer by arranging the sequence in backwards order, so that we might read it either from dry-to-wet or wet-to-dry; not good news in either direction. A similar sardonic take on the demise of civilization as we know it is a depiction of Toronto’s CN Tower buried in layers of geological deposits with only the last few feet of its radio mast poking above the ground. I’m told that the piece is a study for a sculpture the artist actually installed in the city in question, with the exposed mast suggesting the rest of the tower underneath, a foreshadowing of the ruined landscape of the future.
The most engaging work in the exhibition is a spectacular installation called Selected Standards, which entirely fills the large rearmost space previously reserved for media displays. Inspired by a set of sheet music Macdonald purchased at a junk store, the work features 84 framed musical title pages paired with framed drawings and black and white photographs. The music itself is a familiar sampling of vintage pop songs of mid-century America, whose various themes of concocted, romantic love and moody reminiscence Macdonald contrasts with gritty views of modern Los Angeles and snippets of natural history. To further set the scene, the tunes themselves are heard in the background, thanks to a video which features an off-screen pianist playing a few seconds of each piece, while the covers are displayed in close-up like the quickly-changing titles in a silent movie.
We thus stroll about, lulled by the sort of melodies one associates with Perry Como and the tinkling of cocktail glasses, considering pairings that are in turn mysterious, amusing, ironic, or sad; a poetic spirit coming to terms with the soul-deadening sprawl and anonymity of the modern metropolis. “All Through the Night” is matched with a pencil drawing of a the massed headlights of a gridlocked rural freeway seen from above; a nearby drawing features a police helicopter training a searchlight on the nighttime city, accompanying the sheet music entitled “Where are You?”. “You Smell So Good” is placed beside an aerial photograph of a gigantic freeway interchange, while the photo next to “Make Love to Me” is centered on a highly phallic hotel tower surrounded by flat warehouses and parking lots. The song title “Snowfall” is matched with a drawing of a blank TV screen, suggesting the electronic snow of pre-digital television, while “Cocoanut [sic] Sweet” is set against a drawing of a disco ball, another centerpiece for modern electronic amusement. To his credit, Macdonald keeps changing the deal; several of the images are suggested by the graphic design, rather than the title, of the sheet music. The cover sheet for “Tenderly” features the open pages of sheet music adrift against a dark background with white musical notations, transformed by the artist in the accompanying drawing into a white-winged satellite floating in a starry sky, while “Time Will Tell” is set alongside a careful drawing of the background tile pattern, minus the text.
Interestingly, some of the images forgo irony entirely, and substitute Macdonald’s own romantic imagery for that of the pop song, like the starry sky next to “Just For Now” or drawings featuring the Northern Lights or luminescent jellyfish.
What makes Macdonald’s work stand up over such a broad survey, besides his finely honed sense of the absurd, is an inquiring bent of mind with a fully intact sense of wonder, a useful commodity for an artist of any stripe.