Contrary to popular opinion, there’s no inherent reason why art exhibits can’t be both serious and entertaining. This month three highly amusing and edifying shows are side by side in Pioneer Square, and it’s not taking anything away from the art to suggest that the younger set may take as much pleasure in these works as their elders. Here to discuss these shows is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Just in time for the holidays, Pioneer Square is hosting three excellent shows by artists clearly in touch with their childhood pastimes, making serious art while engaging in such activities as model-building and animation.
First off is John Taylor, showing at Garde Rail Gallery, which specializes in “outsider” art. Taylor tinkers in a Southern California garage surrounded by bins containing the cast-off detritus of industrial America. There’s a satisfying irony to the fact that eviscerated cell phones, disintegrated computers, and wrecked optical devices that form such an important part of his work end up as models of actual, long-departed ships. Broken circuit boards become deck plates, their components suggesting hatches, bins, and posts; resistors and capacitors become turrets, winches, and fuel tanks; binoculars transform into smokestacks. The silver handle of a camera rewind crank sits atop the bridge of a luxury liner like a metallic crown. The unifying theme of all of Taylor’s work is the corrosive and leveling power of time, and his metallic fleet all looks very much the worse for wear.
The weathered patina of Taylor’s ships, in fact, is one of their most appealing features. No mere rust, the hulls and superstructures and masts of the Taylor fleet bristle with complicated and subtly colored textural effects, taking as a point of departure undersea photos of the great shipwrecks of history, but sporting a much more evolved palette of restrained greens, violets, blue-greys, and pinks. No surface is left smooth, shiny, or simple, and the all-encompassing decay seems almost to be advancing as we watch.
In recent times Taylor has chosen to broaden his subject matter to include the purely imaginary as well as the historic, and the two strongest pieces in the current show fall into this category. Noah’s arc seems monumental, even though it measures less than four feet long, and here Taylor’s skill at aging a surface is a perfect match for his mythic subject. Constructed of layers of plywood, Taylor’s arc is a primitive, coffin-shaped floating city, its gorgeously decayed brown-black hull pierced by hundreds of tiny windows, an inner world large enough to shelter a very satisfying zoology. Similarly expressive is Jonah’s whale, writhing its massive bulk and covered with tiny grey wooden slats, like the siding on a hillbilly’s shanty, and with exposed nail heads like barnacles. The detail of the tiny figure in the whale’s mouth is one of the few moments in the show whereTaylor lapses too far into the literal; contrast with this dimly-seen shapes inside the arc, shapes which on closer inspection are not animals, but more capacitors, resistors, and transistors.
Scott Trimble is also a master craftsman, filling every available surface of the mezzanine level of Greg Kucera Gallery with an array of tiny wooden bridges, stairways, and ramps. Clearly in touch with his inner child, Trimble multiplies simple elements to a level of inspired absurdity, like the wall-mounted construction entitled "Hive," in which hypnotic rows of short stairways and closed doors create a stage set ready for a treatment by Franz Kafka, or a nightmare sequence from a film noir. "Wheelchair Accessible," is a spiral of diminishing size to nowhere. "Maze," consists of a set of wooden corrals for herding humans instead of cattle. The pieces have been specially designed for the space, and several span great chunks of the gallery, following real stairways or ceilings as a sort of accompanying alternative world in miniature. The child in our group saw the whole installation as a magical maze to follow and explore.
Another sort of wizardry is afoot at the neighboring Soil Gallery. Two guest artists, Jesse Paul Miller and Brent Watanabe, have collaborated on a series of animated installations. The animations are composed of attractive, straightforward pencil drawings reminiscent of children’s book illustrations. These drawings, randomly re-combined by computer, are projected in various ways throughout the gallery, as both still and moving images. The most compelling of the various pieces is an enigmatic, multi-layered black & white cartoon, where we pan quickly across a storybook landscape while cryptic objects and foreign alphabets whirl past in space. The effect is both amusing and slightly sinister, sort of Disney Gothic. Similarly off-key is a cute animated puppy projected onto an invisible screen nearby and appearing to hover in space, sprouting mutant extra limbs and crying as we watch. All this oddball visual activity is accompanied by an equally off-kilter soundtrack, with some of the equipment and images housed in thrift store furniture from the previous century, a further mix-and-match of low tech and high. The artists subvert our sense of the predictable by using an outside agency - computer technology - to take familiar imagery out for a stroll in the surreal.
What these three shows share in common, besides a high level of inventiveness and craft, is a celebration of the spirit of play. It’s not only a relief from the arid seriousness of much gallery work, but it’s also a reminder that childhood gives rise to a number of the passions which fuel the artistic impulse in adults.