The economic downturn has been hard on the local art scene, with several key contemporary galleries shutting their doors or leaving town. But artists keep working, nonetheless, and a number of ad-hoc, non-commercial exhibition spaces have emerged in recent years as an alternative way to show and sell work. Not all these spaces are storefronts, warehouses, or lofts. Several artists have opened their own homes to show work, the most notable of which is called Season (it offers four 3-month shows a year) and sits inconspicuously in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood.
KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin, ventured to Season to see the Mike Simi show.
That is decidedly not the case with the exhibition of Mike Simi, at the alternative space Season, a By-Appointment-Only gallery at the house of Seattle artist Robert Yoder. Actually, “at the house” isn’t putting it quite right, since it suggests a space that is located somewhere on the premises, like a woodshop. The gallery space includes, but is not confined to, Yoder’s living room; art is also on display and for sale in the kitchen, the dining room, the bathroom, and the guest bedroom, where the bed serves as a sort of flat file for smaller works. As one might suspect (Yoder is extremely professional in his role as an art dealer), the house is kept much more immaculate than your average digs, but two people nonetheless live in what is in fact a modest-sized, early-50s bungalow. It makes for an, at times, messy intersection between the public and private, what’s for sale, and what’s not (the artist’s personal collection is on view as well), but the fuzziness of that intersection can also work in the art’s favor, as it does in the current show in several instances.
This is especially true in the small dining room, where besides a tidy, built-in liquor cabinet, fully stocked (contents not for sale), is a sleek, glass pedestal table, on which we are presented a bowl of salty snacks (free) and a plate of several dozen, silver saltine crackers, carefully arranged in a circle (for sale, by the piece). Unlike the whiskey and the munchies, the crackers, in fact, are a mockery of food and domestic comfort. Life-size replicas cast in lead and then painted, they are typical of Simi’s art, which presents various artifacts of contemporary blue-collar life in oddball combinations and permutations. Lead saltines (their silver paint a dead match for the silver wall alongside) are like a mortician’s version of comfort food, using a material more associated with bullets and toxicity and overbearing weight, to make a sort of memorial version of a snack – a fossilized cracker.
Another domestic comfort turned surrealist subterfuge is on view in the kitchen, where above a shelf of plates and dishes over the sink is a full glass tumbler whose round base is fastened to the wall, its liquid contents seemingly frozen in place. Titled “Old Fashioned,” the piece is a life-sized resin re-creation of the venerable mixed drink, complete with murky booze, plastic orange slice, maraschino cherry, and ice cubes. Simi is fully aware that plastic food replicas are a staple of a certain type of restaurant; his version happens to be much, much better crafted and subversively mounted, and it’s about not finding what you want – false advertising - as opposed to a promise of the Real Thing coming to your table soon. That it’s around the corner from Yoder’s very real (and clearly off-limits) alcohol array is another part of the irony, as is its appropriateness for the very 1950’s setting, the era when cocktails were king and wine was for sissies.
Working stiffs (non-sissies) are also who Simi has in mind with the centerpiece of the exhibit, a gleaming blue metal handtruck on a white pedestal holding court over the living room, fully visible from the outside through the big, wrap-around picture window. Simi is most noted for his large-scale, average-guy sculptures (his 10-foot animatronic “Mr. Weekend” was recently on view at BAM), and the dolly is like a Rock of Sisyphus for Joe Plumber, a tool engineered to move but never accomplish anything. Entitled “Siamese Handtruck,” it made of two dollies turned to face each other, and then welded together, with one narrow common platform of no utility whatsoever. This piece is the opposite of those Soviet posters and sculptures celebrating workers, tractors, and the triumph of the socialist state; it’s about competition, obsolescence, and honest labor at a dead end, going nowhere and designed to fail.
Further adding to the atmosphere of frustration is the sound of nervous, metallic jangling, the work of a hyper-kinetic mechanical sculpture a few feet away, which shakes the sort of set of keys on a large ring a janitor or security guard might wear, in a random, spasmodic way, including a set of good luck rabbit’s feet that whirl and twirl. When in action (there are long pauses between active pulses), the piece brings to mind some sort of winged, bat-like creature, energetically flapping away but not going anywhere, like the dolly. Going nowhere fast is also the fate of a set of ice skates, whose blades have been replaced with a set of enormous, stainless steel thunderbolts, a pop-culture reference to a fantasy weapon design no doubt familiar to the sword and sorcery set. Like its fellow altered objects, the skates are great fun to look at, and perfectly useless, like the imaginary sword they are inspired by.
Simi’s work is least successful when it doesn’t move the needle past the strategy of “replica”; a perfect cast of the back of an I-Phone hangs on a wall too inconspicuously for its own good, and a large all-white canvas in the shape of a 7-day pill dispenser doesn’t have enough visual content to justify its size. And he’s clearly constrained by size of the venue – one would love to see what Simi could accomplish with a generous budget, some assistants, and a major space to fill. But in an era of Reduced Expectations and Doing It Yourself, Season is a brave effort to keep the art torch burning. Not too many folks are keen enough about their cutting-edge contemporary art to make an appointment with a stranger to visit a gallery in a private house, but Yoder has just enough traffic – including key members of the local art establishment – and a low budget business plan, that his quirky venue is likely to be around for some time to come.