Bellevue Art Museum - architect Steven Holl
When the new Tacoma Art Museum opens it doors in 2003, it will mark end of an art museum building boom that transformed virtually every museum in the region, including the Frye, the Henry, and SAM. The most recent museum to hold its grand reopening is the Bellevue Art Museum, which moved into its new quarters in downtown Bellevue last month. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has visited several times since, and here are his thoughts.
The opening of the new Bellevue Art Museum, across the street from its charmless original location atop the Bellevue Square mall, is an occasion for general celebration. Few moments in the cultural life of a region seem as rich with potential as the unveiling of a major new space.
Unique among local museums, Bellevue has no collection of its own, but exists to celebrate the process, the ideas, and the making of art. Steven Holl’s architecture reflects this at every turn — starting right at the glass entrance way, where compositionally a busy pottery studio, an outdoor video projection, and first floor artworks are all given equal prominence.
In the opening exhibits themselves — the largest of which is a group show on the theme of light - the museum stakes out broad aesthetic territory. Video, installation, and site-specific art are displayed side-by-side with old-fashioned easel painting, and the building — a handsome, if very self-conscious affair of long curving stairs and quirky cutouts - is treated as a part of the show.
Throughout the museum, the level of curatorial input is unusually high, and in some cases the rhetoric outstrips the artwork. A stagecoach built by artist Rodney Graham sits just inside the entrance, its passenger space darkened and equipped with a lens which projects an upside down view of Bellevue Way into the coach interior. The accompanying text informs us that this amusing but unremarkable work is a “reminder of the radical unreliability of what we see,” and a paradigm of the sort of perceptual upheavals which characterized the 20th Century. This is a heavy weight for any artwork to bear, let alone one which seems at least as well suited for a science museum or an amusement park.
On the other hand, the lighthearted installation by Seattle artist Dan Webb in the same space accomplishes its stated mission perfectly. Two house lamps light the atrium floor, and their lampshades madly multiply and grow ever-larger in a rope-suspended heavenward arc, ending at a skylight. With wit and grace, this sculpture both refers to virtues of the new building and suggests a variety of interesting metaphors regarding light, insight, and transformation.
Other juxtapositions work equally well. In the main gallery space on the third floor a time lapse photograph of mysterious streaks of light (actually a flashlight waved by the artist, Japan’s Tokihiro Sato) is perfectly matched with a stellar canvas by local hero Mark Tobey, all aglow with quite similar white streaks.
Adding another voice to this dialog of light, a line of vending machines gleams from behind a plate glass window — machines which, we abruptly realize, are part of the art. The front panels of the nine machines form a giant back lit panorama of Niagara Falls — and in a witty stroke, also sell bottled water. Alas, the drama dissipates by day, when the same machines appear a bit drab, the theme of commodification a bit worn.
Other works run the gamut from the sublime — a startling magnified televised view of a dripping water by Bill Viola, to the pretentious — a clutter of cryptic projections and transparencies by Hap Tivey, to the really annoying — a wall of intermittent, insubstantial video clips from a group that calls itself the Bureau of Inverse Technology.
Perhaps the most striking moment in the entire exhibit is provided by the minimalist hero Dan Flavin. His small neon sculpture, romantically sub-titled to S.A., lovingly, sits quietly in a far upstairs corner, its hearth-like red-violet glow a fitting counterpart to the subtle indirect light favored by architect Holl. The sheer understatement of Flavin’s piece — simply a grid of 5 white and 5 red store-bought fluorescent lights bolted together — is a major part of its strength, and understatement is a virtue from which artists, architects, and even curators can sometimes benefit.