Museums are often works in progress, shedding old spaces for new, altering the focus of their exhibitions and public programming. But few local institutions have experienced more profound changes in such a short time than the venerable Frye Art Museum. Having already been reborn both physically and curatorially after an extensive remodeling and expansion program in 1997, the Frye again sharply changed course with the hiring of Chief Curator Robin Held in 2004. The current exhibition, Swallow Harder, Selections from the Ben and Aileen Krohn Collection, highlights both the pleasures and perils of the new dispensation. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin has just returned from a visit, and he joins us with his thoughts.
When the Frye reopened under new management eight years ago, it was with an exhibition of the paintings of the Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum: dramatic, oddball fantasies of a post-nuclear world where retro-primitive tribes battled for supremacy, a stylistic melding of Rembrandt and Bladerunner. Such an exhibit would have been unthinkable in the old Frye which rarely, if ever, featured art that was edgy or topical, let alone represented on the international art scene.
But Frye regulars who became accustomed in the years since to a steady diet of technically accomplished representational painting, both contemporary and historical, have another round of adjusting to do. The new Frye has made a decisive shift towards the contemporary mainstream, where painting is seen as merely one media amongst many, form can be subservient to content, and content is often confrontational or obscure.
Chief Curator Robin Held has also reinterpreted the word “representational” (still held up as a key Frye value), to include photography, video, and even - curiously - text art, like the giant wall-mounted vinyl letters “Swallow Harder” by artist Mark Mumford that greet visitors to the current show. Mechanically-produced imagery, in fact, holds sway nearly everywhere in the museum at the moment, from the exhibition of architectural photography by Candida Hofer in the rear galleries and hall, to the Krohn Collection show itself, where the vast majority of the works on view are either photographic or photographically-derived.
A further nod towards recent trends in the wider art world is the underlying theme of the current Swallow Harder show (as none-too-subtly suggested by the title): Sex, gender identity, and homoeroticism. Images of cross-dressing, bodily fluids, and sex acts, are plentiful, along with closely-related references to celebrity and rock-and-roll. Ironically, many of the strongest pieces in the exhibit have little to do with these themes, which may be due to the dangers in choosing work based on subject matter more than artistic merit, or may be pure coincidence.
It may also be purely coincidental that a majority of the best works on view are by local artists rather than those from abroad, but it is an encouraging sign nonetheless for boosters of the Seattle scene.
Two works can be selected as representative of the high and low points of the exhibition. On the plus side of the ledger is a gilded ceramic pickle jar by veteran Seattle artist Jeffrey Mitchell, a spotlit baroque extravaganza that purposely mimics the look of a vintage Italian reliquary (unlike which, his vessel is eloquently empty) with a dense tangle of surface ornament that amusingly mixes plant forms, anchors, elephant heads, and chains, all given the faux-precious treatment of a gold glaze. Though the curator finds links here to the homoerotic thread running through the rest of the show, the average visitor merely revels in the craft, humor, and visual delight, not to mention irony. Pickle jar, indeed.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of artistic success we find a large, nearly monochromatic painting by Los Angeles artist Matt Greene entitled, "Lair of the Hessians."Hung in the same gallery as Greene’s sophomoric ink drawing of a troop of generic, overly-endowed female nudes, Hessians depicts their equally absurd male counterparts. Behind the enormous dripping, brown silhouette of the trunk and roots of a tree, anonymous, long-haired figures are sketchily depicted, their placement arbitrary, their actions indecipherable, with disembodied hands, weapons, and guitars appearing here and there as though clipped from another picture. The painting is as inert as an object as it is empty as a statement, suggesting, in an overgrown-adolescent way, a sort of Goth, rock-and-roll forest cult, which the artist presents in a sloppy, cartoon version, far too feeble for its overpowering scale.
A similar contrast between work which substitutes bombast for content and work which presents intriguing ideas in a compelling form is provided by two photographic treatments of oral sex. Chicago artist Jason Salavon employs the currently fashionable technique of computer sampling to create a composite image based on averaging 76 close-up photographs of oral sex, with the blurry, result image being no more interesting for all that trouble than any large, fuzzy photograph made by the old-fashioned method of pose, point, and shoot. The only interest here (besides the fact that the artist writes his own sampling software) is how hard it is to make out what is actually going in, but so what? Explicit and amorphous does not equal profound.
Seattle artist (and resident of the TK Building) Steven Miller hits a home run with his very different take on the same sex act. Instead of the banal linkage of penis and mouth, Miller has created a series of large-format, high-focus portraits of naked people (mostly male) being splashed with cold milk, here clearly a stand-in for the exchange of bodily fluids.
Miller is highly accomplished at using strobe light to capture the kinetic, sculptural effect of lots of white fluid splashed with force on a resistant body, as well as provoking a variety of extremely expressive responses from his subjects. In the sample of three images included in the current show, one lets out a whoop that seems halfway between pain and pleasure, another closes his eyes as the milk completely covers his face like a white mask, while the last raises his head backwards and drinks with abandon from the descending stream. The milk appropriately seems both invasive and exciting, as well as beautiful in its own right as a form, but is it something we want on our own naked skin, just at the moment? The dilemma of sex in the age of AIDS has rarely been as skillfully evoked.
Local artists Clair Cowie, Patrick Holderfield, Scott Fife, and Leo Saul Berk are also represented with impressive works, particularly Fife’s cardboard, disembodied head of "Mies Van de Rohe" in the entrance rotunda and Holderfield’s masterly drawing from his Raft of Medusa series. But a comment I overheard from a museum visitor clarified something that I had been wondering about myself. “Isn’t this place getting a lot more like the Henry?” someone asked their companion. Up until last year, the Frye was always known as the one local museum that marched to the beat of a different drummer, choosing to ignore certain contemporary trends in favor of a conscious specialization, a cultivation of one corner of the art garden.
Now the Frye is joining the crowded field of other local venues that highlight the Art of the Moment, like the Henry, COCA, Western Bridge, and ConWorks, not to mention the newly expanded SAM-to-come. Since the now-elastic definition of representational seems far too vague to alone distinguish the new Frye, will the future bring even more blurring of its role vis-à-vis its counterparts, or will it continue to be a place with its own distinct identity? One hopes that the reborn Frye moves forward with more than a passing glance to its past.