Western Bridge, Seattle’s liveliest alternative exhibition space, is the ongoing project of local art collectors Bill and Ruth True, working with curator Eric Frederickson. Each show revolves around a particular theme, and each includes artists from the True’s collection who are leading lights in the world of contemporary art. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joins us to discuss the current exhibit at Western Bridge, Insubstantial Pageant Faded.
Scoff and lament the fallen state of contemporary art, and the credulousness of the art-loving public?
Admire the clever way in which the artist in question, Martin Creed, subverts our conventional notions of the primacy of the artist’s hand, and draws our attention to the way light can transform our experience of space, and our relationship to the mundane? Acknowledge the role of the artist in thus arousing our response, and starting a conversation?
Play it safe and have no opinion at all?
Art audiences have been submitting themselves to the Philistine/Cognoscenti test for several decades now, faced with the works of minimalists or conceptualists that stretch conventional definitions of “art”, and notions of “originality”. What experience someone derives from steel plates on the floor, vinyl lettering on the walls, or carefully selected rows of household objects, depends on a great many things, especially a prior familiarity with the work of similar artists, and an awareness of the critical apparatus that supports them. Martin Creed, for example, won the prestigious Turner Prize in England in 2001 for his on-off light fixture, and that has everything to do with his inclusion here, and the subsequent need to take him seriously.
I hate his piece. Color it yellow and hang it on a wire and it would make an excellent caution light. Can we get over Duchamp and his urinal, already? Some art movements have very long legs; the epater le bourgeois branch of conceptualism, 90 years young, has worn out its welcome.
The good news about the current show at Western Bridge is that nearly everything else, by contrast, makes a compelling point in a way that is original, artful, and very much on message, which in this particular case is: Everything Changes. Ice melts, snow falls, houses decay back to nature, people die….
…and light can become sculpture. That is the bottom line of the best of the works on view, Doubling Back, by the New York-based British artist Anthony McCall. If Creed’s flashing lamp requires an extensive backstory to appreciate as art, McCall’s installation needs no arguments in its favor, no mobilizing of critical and curatorial firepower, no suspension of our usual desire for some sensory payoff. Its intensity as an experience is compelling enough that it might melt the resistance of even the most determined modern art cynic. If you do not like the McCall, then perhaps you really do think art mostly ended with Rembrandt, lurched along through the Impressionists, and was then buried once and for all by Kandinsky and the rest of the Modernist shock troops.
McCall’s piece consists of a digital light projection in a pitch-dark room. You enter the room directly opposite the projector, from which emerges what looks like a silver, slightly curved wall, suspended in space. The sculpted light is made tangible by the sharpness of the projected image (two slowly moving sine waves crossing at right angles against a white background) and by a faint trace of smoke from a hidden fog machine. McCall’s drawings for the piece depict a structure like an ice cream cone on its side, with its pointed end at the projector, and its flat end at the far wall, and it’s more or less exactly what he’s created.
The overall image has the crisp geometry of a Richard Serra sculpture, but with a presence as insubstantial and evasive as his work is monumental and overbearing. On my second visit, I made like Alice and crossed into the field of shimmering, shaped light itself, an environment where the shadow of one’s hand can slice through a wall, and the sharp-edged tunnel of light surrounds you, bending and folding as it cuts through space. One can never quite resolve the contradiction of inside/outside, transparent/solid, and public/private. It feels a bit like walking into McCall’s head, exploring an unfamiliar terrain; a physical manifestation of the scientific concept that light is something more than pure energy, but something less than an actual substance.
The work of sculpture next door to "Doubling Back" is equally theatrical, but without McCall’s rich matrix of overtones and implications. "Nostalgia is Fear," by Jordan Wolfson, is installed for maximum drama and effect in the gallery’s largest space, and turning the corner from the small entrance hall to stare into the flickering headlights of a snow-covered Porsche is startling indeed. I liked the work better the first time I saw it, when the Hollywood flakes falling from the ceiling left much of the car lights exposed, shining prettily through the white. By the end of the exhibit in December, given the current rate of accumulation, visitors might not realize that snowy mound contains anything inside. A fellow artist complained to me that the piece was “sentimental”, but it has the same thing going for it that energizes the McCall – it does cool things with light, made to shine through increasing layers of powder and ice. The key here is that the car isn’t simply being covered with snow; it’s being covered with snow with all the lights and sound systems on, the automotive equivalent of being buried alive, and giving the work an ominous, rather than sentimental spin.
Since the Trues as collectors are very focused on the international arts scene, many shows at Western Bridge go by without the inclusion of local artists. Not so this time; two of the strongest works in the current exhibit are by the Seattle artists Dan Webb and Alex Schweder.
Schweder’s piece, the only one commissioned specifically for the show, is a video projection of the life cycle of an imaginary building, using the industry-standard CAD program. In five minutes we watch a house appear in plan view, grow and eventually be overtaken by animated house plants. At the end of the piece, the vegetation has taken on the shape of the house, and the cycle begins again. Schweder, trained as an architect, is using the tools of the trade to give his piece a distinctly anti-monumental spin, a technical study of unbuilding, decay, and rebirth.
Sculptor Dan Webb also explores unbuilding, or in his case, unmaking. His series of 40 photographs documents the evolution of a single sculpture, from a block of wood, to a portrait bust, and then back to a skull which is gradually carved away into nothingness. Enshrined in the middle of the gallery is a Plexiglas box filled with sawdust, that by extension (not literally, I presume) is all that remains of the project. Webb strikes just the right balance between humor, metaphor, and intriguing form; some of the stages of his unmaking, particular the melting skull, are compelling sculptures in and of themselves.
Casual visitors to the exhibit might miss the one particularly unusual inclusion: an actual painting, the work of German artist Julia Schmidt. The work itself - a close-up of decayed wood – is nothing special, but it does point out how much everything-else-besides-painting has dominated the program at WB. In this case, it’s especially ironic, since the centuries-old tradition of the Vanitas - art about mortality and dissolution – is the ultimate source of the exhibit’s underlying theme.