Three very different shows where a high level of craftsmanship serves a provocative artistic vision are on view this month in Pioneer Square. In the exhibits of shimmering abstractions by Darren Waterston, giant wood sculptures by Minoru Ohira, and paintings by Francesca Sundsten, we see works by artists with something interesting to say who are in complete command of their mediums. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, was particularly intrigued by the Sundsten show, her first in Seattle in two years, at the Davidson Gallery. Here is his review.
The principal subject of this new, cloudless show is the individual: their fears, dreams, and relationship to the wider world — and appealing as Sundsten’s sky paintings may have been, people pictures they were not.
So instead of sun-gilded cumulonimbus, we now have a row of portrait heads, portraits in which each person is confronting some overwhelming life challenge, symbolically expressed. In "Progress", perhaps the strongest image in the show, the theme seems to be the price, and the necessity, of change. An attractive young women is seen in profile, a stalwart expression on her face. And stalwart she must be, for her face is being pierced by nearly a dozen fishhooks, each one attached to a taut nylon line pulled by something or someone behind her, outside the picture. Her dilemma is obvious: although only forward motion can break her free of the hooks, her escape will come at the risk of even more pain.
In the painting "In Fog," a serious young man peers intently into our eyes, his gaze especially riveting because the rest of his face is shrouded in mist so dense that more distant features like ears and neck are indistinct, and shoulders have completely disappeared. Sundsten’s painting style, sharp focus realism with a distinct classical pedigree, makes the dissolving act all the more convincing. The image reminds us of the impossibility of ever fully penetrating the shroud that separates us from each other.
In nearby, thematically-related drawings, tiny, iconic figures wander aimlessly in vaguely threatening landscapes. In "On Ice," men stumble through a whiteout on a frozen lake — an image far looser and more cursory than most of Sundsten’s work. In another drawing, people seem unaware of the giant cavern undermining the surface on which they walk. In "The Clearing," a half dozen people search a forest meadow, their flashlight beams finding neither each other nor any other landmark. The picture is a sort of a summer camp version of the story of the blind men and the elephant, where each individual sees only a tiny and misleading part of the larger whole.
Small models, scattered on pedestals between the paintings and drawings, form a third line of inquiry. Rather than an artistic expression of personal quandaries or depictions of disquieting landscapes, these much more cerebral constructions portray colossal, offbeat shrines, with nods to nearby pictures. In the "Monument to the Corporeal," for example, a Lincoln Memorial style colonnade barely encloses an enormous, wounded hand, it’s many, pinpoint penetrations recalling the punctured face opposite. One tiny plastic spectator admires this neo-Christian celebration of transcendence through pain. In another model, "Monument to the Reconstruction of History" hook and line reappear as tools for a group of men attempting to restrain a snarling horse’s head, like Lilliputians tying up Gulliver. The horse head itself is based on the famed bronze stallions of Venice, statues whose long history of theft and retrieval is a classic saga of man’s desire to possess the priceless and the ineffable.
Sundsten’s personal attempt to entrap the ineffable has found many compelling outlets in this splendid show, and judging from her own history, her next show may well strike off in other, unanticipated directions.