As in many other cities, public art in Seattle includes its share of hits and misses. From time to time over the next several months, KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, will review some of the newer public artworks in places like the downtown library and the airport, and he will revisit some of the highlights and lowlights to be found elsewhere. Today Gary discusses the three-story tall mural by Seattle artist Michael Fajans inside the just-opened Federal Courthouse, which although off the beaten path for most Seattlelites, will reward a special visit.
It is therefore a bit surprising to report that not only has Michael Fajans produced a work that harkens back to the civic-minded murals of yesteryear, he has done so with smashing success. His painting on the subject of the jury system, in the lobby of the new Seattle Federal Courthouse, is well worth the trouble it takes to visit.
The courthouse itself is half-architectural showpiece, half-fortress. Somewhat intimidating in terms of scale and materials, the building’s layers of concrete obstacles, glowering guards, and metal detectors don’t make it obvious that the public is welcome — which it is. Rising above the entrance plaza is a bronze 20 foot monolith by New York artist Ming Fay, its vaguely organic shape inspired by a cedar seed. This standard-issue piece of corporate art — bland and unengaging — provides a fitting counterpoint to the in-your-face Fajans, a work which is striking even from afar, seen through the glass facade.
From this outside vantage point, partly blocked by elevator shafts, the general structure of the Fajan’s painting is clear. The first floor features a dozen much-larger-than-life, photorealist renderings of a variety of working people on the job, their huge shapes barely contained by the walls. Directly above, the second floor features a dozen renderings of a standard office chair, while on the third floor sits a row of people, looking serious. Bright, rainbow color on the first floor gives way to mostly black and white on floors two and three.
The colorful and conventional first floor, in fact, is something of a setup for the other floors. Fajans starts with the most obvious fact about the jury system, that it is made up of a range of ordinary citizens. Assembling a very politically correct array of professions, racial and gender types, Fajans portrays each individual seated while at work, from the window washer on his swing, the bus driver on her seat, to the potter on his stool. One is vaguely reminded of an ad for a bank, or a cell phone provider.
Dramatically different from advertising imagery, however, is the composition and materiality of the painting itself. Several technical features of the work are highly unusual, particularly Fajan’s choice to apply his figures directly to the wood panel of the wall rather than to a mounted canvas. Built up of multiple layers of airbrushed acrylic and casting gentle shadows, Fajan’s colossal everymen and everywomen have no background other than the wood grain itself, thus appearing not quite in front of the wall, and not quite within.
Lulled into expectations of predictable imagery from floor number one, the viewer gets a jolt on floor number two. Here are 12 versions of the same reality, a dozen wildly divergent portrayals of the same innocuous office chair: upside down, out of focus, split in half, giant, miniature, shattered into 3-D bricks, and in negative-reverse. Rendered in the same deadpan, highly literal manner as the figures on the floor below, these chairs by contrast offer no easy or obvious interpretation, other than a sense of struggle and disorder.
Resolution, of a sort, comes on the third floor. Here the workers of the main floor have become the jurors of the courtroom, having shed their work clothes for civilian wear. Each individual is painted life-sized, in black-and-white monochrome, seated and staring very deliberately out at us as we stand at their eye level. The effect is mildly disconcerting, like seeing a police car in one’s rear view mirror. We are being judged, and those who are doing the judging are taking their job most seriously. The many have become the one — the collective intelligence known as the jury.
The juror’s chair, of course, is the same furniture as the piece so completely deconstructed on floor number two. Somehow, the distinct realities that individuals bring to their deliberations, symbolized by the chair, can become resolved (hopefully) in the course of the process itself.
This is heady stuff to be contained in a painting, even one as carefully plotted and executed as this one. I’m not sure that the chair as symbol of subjective reality quite works the way the artist intended, but the good news is that the second floor is so appealing and intriguing entirely on its own — love those crazy chairs — that it doesn’t really matter.
Taken as a whole, the courthouse mural (entitled, by the way, "Three Sets of Twelve,") qualifies as one of the most impressive public artworks in the region, proving — for this generation, at least — that even work meant to be edifying and instructive can make very good art. And with that, this jury of one, rests.