First Thursday in Pioneer Square this month marked the debut of the Toshiro Kaplan Building, a newly renovated warehouse that has already added energy to the downtown art scene. This large, ambitious project includes artist live-work spaces, artist studios, and ground-floor storefronts reserved for art-related business. Four galleries have opened in the street-level spaces: three have chosen to move in from elsewhere, and one is making its debut. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, recently visited this newly minted gallery row, and here is his review.
The four cheek-by-jowl galleries at the Toshiro Kaplan Building, and a fifth, slated to open shortly, all specialize in showing the work of artists that are experimental, emerging, or otherwise outside the commercial galley mainstream. Well outside of the gallery mainstream, for example, is the current show at SOIL, a non-profit artists’ cooperative.
Called Masquerade and with self-portraiture as a very loose theme, the exhibit does itself and its artists no favors by mounting the various pieces at the top of the wall, just below the ceiling. The conceptual justification for this unusual installation is not at all clear, even after viewing the artworks at closer range — as intended by the curator — on a blurry, black-and-white television monitor at one end of the gallery.
Also unusual is the fact that very few of the self-portraits include recognizable depictions of the artist themselves. Instead we have work like Helen Curtis’s glass casts of her hand, lips and breast; a few landscapes; and Toi Sennhauser’s presentation of a slice of bread covered with honey and what is described as “vaginal yeast,” presumably her own. One looks forward to seeing the individually interesting artists of this gallery in shows that more successfully spotlight their talents.
More random, and less skillful, is a group show at Forgotten Works gallery up the block. This well-meaning enterprise gives wall space to artists at the very beginning of their career, with little to no curatorial filtering in evidence. A few strong pieces stand out like beacons, particularly Allison Agostinelli’s haunting portrayal of a nude woman whose body is covered with mysterious, imaginary tattoos. This non-profit space does have the virtue of offering some very affordable art — a large installation highlights dozens of small works with identical $40 price tags.
Easily the most accessible art on the block is at the Garde Rail Gallery, a folk art gallery moved here from Columbia City. I’ve never been quite clear on what qualifies an artist as folk, outsider, or primitive, but the bright, cheerful pieces here lining the walls have a charm that tends to make one forget about categories and classifications. Particularly attractive are the thick-as-custard oil paintings of Toronto streetscapes by Jennifer Harrison, and the found-object ship sculptures of John Taylor, whose previous Garde Rail exposure helped land him a one-man show at the Henry.
The strongest of the current shows is at the artist-run Platform Gallery, a brand new enterprise making a terrific first impression. The inaugural exhibit features the work of two artists who share a highly evolved ability to create alternative life forms, a sort of unnatural history. California artist Carlee Fernandez assembles wall-mounted dioramas where small stuffed animals display both amusing and creepy mutations. A taxidermy white rat, for example, clings to the gallery wall, while bright-red grapes burst out from its body, suggesting either the explosion of its internal organs or some sort of super-fertility.
Portland artist Keith Yurdana depicts even more unlikely creatures. A large treelike construction hangs from the ceiling, its surface made of skin rather than bark. Surgery is in progress, and teeming internal organs can be seen where the inside has been cut open and pinned back. Huge drawings hang nearby, rendered in a highly accomplished pseudo-scientific style vaguely reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci.
With all this new activity, Pioneer Square seems likely to remain the vital center of the local art scene — particularly if it can continue to house those very rent-sensitive souls, working artists.