An important part of the local arts landscape are several smaller galleries that specialize in showing work that is edgy, experimental, and challenging. Dealers who show such work must be prepared to cultivate and educate a clientele — making a commercial go of selling such art is never easy. In Seattle, one of the most respected and lively of these spaces is the James Harris Gallery in Pioneer Square, just across the street from the much larger and more venerable showcase of the avant-garde, Greg Kucera. This month’s exhibition at the Harris Gallery, highlighting the work of Seattle artist Patrick Holderfield is, true to form, very one-of-a-kind. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers are just two recent traumas that have called into question both our collective sense of security, and our trust in technology. Two hundred years ago, the sinking of the French sailing ship Medusa and the lingering, lurid death of most of its crew on a tiny raft, created a similar sense of unease in Europe. The disaster was immortalized in one of the epic paintings of art history, Gericault’s colossal, "Raft of the Medusa," now at the Louvre.
The very inventive Patrick Holderfield has chosen to tap into this shared communal anxiety by loosely basing his current work on the Gericault painting. The operative word here is “loosely” — in general, Holderfield treats the older painting as a point of departure, rather than a literal source. In fact, reproductions of the painting are nowhere to be seen, at the artist’s request.
Closest to the original painting is an impressive, energetic installation that fills one corner of the tiny gallery, both an act of homage and an independent work of art. At the base of the installation is a shelf of assorted, time-weathered wooden beams, a clear reference to the crude, timbered raft that is the centerpiece of the painting. Cascading off this shelf, in a perhaps too-literal suggestion of death and gore, is a thick, flesh-like resin waterfall oozing onto the gallery floor.
Rising above this assembly, several dozen bright yellow planks angle upwards in space, the whole forming a very loose compositional pyramid — a stand-in for the pyramid-like grouping of mast and victims that is the centerpiece of the Gericault. Here and there, flying lumber seems to slice clear through the gallery walls. Off to one side, yellow planks are replaced by outline drawings of still more timbers, which continue to tumble through space in two dimensions, rather than three.
The entire wooden display is a sort of anti-construction. Though the pieces are linked in what appears to be structural ways, nothing is truly supported, nothing looks even remotely stable.
Swirling lumber, floating in air but still retaining some semblance of pattern and structure, is, in fact, a recurring theme of the show. Along these lines is a sequence of four drawings depicting a flying formation of timbers, progressively assembling and disassembling. Holderfield is a superb draughtsman, and the contrast here between the precise, architectural quality of the drawings, and the sense of emerging chaos is particularly effective.
Even more striking are the several large-format, mixed media drawings in the main gallery. Here Holderfield really comes into his own, skillfully contrasting tiny, gracefully rendered forms with transparent clouds of brightly colored wash and opaque blobs of jet-black ink. Swirling, highly detailed areas are played off against huge swaths of plain white space — subtleties that make the drawings nearly impossible to appreciate in reproduction, but very rewarding up close.
Looking carefully at one drawing, for example, a group of gnarly black stems seems to end in tiny, floral shapes. The stems are arranged in a circle, radiating outwards like spokes of a wheel. Barely visible underneath and alongside are fragments of other plant and animal forms. These organic elements are underlain in turn by mysterious constructions of timber, here more orderly and complex than elsewhere, but still with no apparent function or logic. Other drawings feature enigmatic, multicolored explosions, turbulent regions from which ink blots streak upwards, and floating, twisting planks cascade down. The unease here is both physical and psychic, restlessness given compelling form.
The original "Raft of the Medusa" was painted in an era where most art celebrated the classical past, or romanticized the present. By contrast, anxiety, chaos and destruction is, unfortunately, a recurrent theme in the art of our troubled times.