The Priceless Works Gallery gives the phrase “off the beaten path” a whole new twist. Visitors interested in viewing this month’s show will have to first find the gallery, located next to a parking lot in an inner block in Fremont. But the effort is worthwhile; the June exhibit is one of the strongest in the city. While the headliners, artists Rich Lehl and Matt Sellars — present work with both a high level of craft and provocative ideas, several other gallery artists also on view provide an excellent supporting cast. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his comments on a neighborhood gallery that deserves to be better known, citywide.
The stars need to be in alignment for a gallery specializing in challenging, contemporary art to survive. Many such galleries manage to last only a few years before succumbing to harsh economic realities, particularly in a place like Seattle, where commercial space is at a premium and serious art collecting is relatively uncommon. The last few decades have seen the rise and fall of a long list of small, ambitious galleries, with the most recent casualties being Bryan Ohno, Atelier 31, and Eyre-Moore.
Fortunately, new galleries seem to emerge, even as older ones fail. One of the most promising of the new crop of art galleries is the Priceless Works in Fremont, already nominated by several local art critics as one of the best places to find great work in an unlikely location. Founder Regan Peck has assembled an eclectic stable of mostly young and emerging artists, working in styles ranging from funk sculpture to abstraction to pop, the pieces themselves showing a level of mastery not always present in the alternative scene.
This month both the featured shows — works by Rich Lehl and Matt Sellars — and the surrounding art by several others, maintain the gallery’s high standards. Rich Lehl is the best-known artist in the group, having had well-reviewed one-person exhibitions in two of the late and lamented downtown galleries listed above. A 1993 graduate of Cornish, he specializes in a droll, deadpan surrealism, featuring scenes from what could almost be everyday existence, give or take a few unusual life forms, or out-of-the-body experiences.
Works in the current show include prints and oil paintings, both executed in a polished, matter-of-fact style. The prints, spare and linear, look a bit like illustrations from a how-to-manual, while the oils are brightly colored, highly rendered, and dramatically lit, the work of an artist anxious to convince the viewer of the palpable, physical existence of his imaginary world.
The enormous, looming shadow of an unseen hot-air balloon, for example, has been carefully detailed in the painting entitled "Ride" — the way it changes color as it falls over the grass, shrubs, and path of a pristine rural valley, with the dark shadows of the half-dozen passengers just visible above the shadow shape of the gondola. Only after scanning the rest of the image for a few moments do we notice the tiny, sci-fi flying saucer hovering in the background, almost like an afterthought. In this particular alien encounter, both entities, human and non-human, seem equally unreal. The landscape itself is the only thing we can really trust.
Other works feature other odd encounters teetering in the unstable territory between the sinister and the droll. In "Meeting," a man on a bicycle stares in surprise at a giant, disembodied head on a pole — which stares at him in turn with an expression of astonishment. Is the slack-jawed head as alive as it looks, or is it only a signpost, or merely a projection of the cyclist’s own thoughts? The lone pedestrian in "Monster" appears completely unaware of the giant, Maurice Sendak creature with long fangs and a inscrutable expression watching him from a window as he strolls past. Perhaps such occurrences are more common than we realize, at least for those of us not in touch with our inner demons.
The works of Matt Sellars occupy an entirely different aesthetic realm. Most of his seven table-top wood sculptures are radical simplifications of the natural world, a process partly documented in the highly accomplished drawings and journal entries that accompany the show. The distinctive sea stacks at Shi Shi Beach on the Washington coast are described in a handwritten narrative, then re-imagined as two rounded, monumental blocks rising from a flat plank, the layered wood stained a bright turquoise and stripped of all texture and detail. Another sculpture takes as its inspiration the dramatic rock arches of the American Southwest. In the Sellars version, a blade-like blond-colored wooden curve balances on two stout wooden pedestals, an homage to the symmetry and fragility of the original rocky form.
The most visionary transformation is a sculptural reinterpretation of a peculiar animal head. In the preparatory study, Sellars presents a lovely drawing of what looks like a desert-dwelling fox, its giant upright ears poking up from a blunt, squarish skull. This relationship — vertical above squat - becomes the point of departure for a long, dark wooden block several feet long, supporting two high, narrow ridges — like the original animal head and ears, only streamlined and stretched out like wood taffy.
No less original, and no less engaging, are nearby works by other gallery artists, including Scott Eiden’s bleak and witty photographs of the Deep South (some working the same territory of everyday surrealism as Rich Lehl); Elise Richman’s tiny, coral-like arrays of closely packed, brilliantly chromatic oil paint drips; and Francesca Berrini’s cut-up and reassembled imaginary maps.
Several decades ago, I stumbled into a scruffy, obscure gallery in the Lower East Side of New York called International with Monument. Among the works on display were several aquariums with floating basketballs, works I immediately dismissed as altogether forgettable, perhaps taking them less seriously because of the setting. That the artist was Jeff Koons, displaying works now immortalized in books and museums, is an object lesson in both the peculiar nature of the art world and the peculiar attraction of the undiscovered. In contemporary art, most every career starts at the margins, and there are aesthetic — if not monetary — rewards for the intrepid viewer, collector, or critic, particularly in venues as intelligently selective as Priceless Works.