The sweeping, years-long expansion project of the Seattle Art Museum has just begun. When the dust finally settles, SAM will join the ranks of America’s largest museums, second on the West Coast only to LACMA in Los Angeles. The question arises: where will SAM get the art to fill all those new galleries? One answer can be found at the Wright Exhibition Space on Dexter Avenue. The current show features works by major contemporary artists who are engaged in some way with the human figure. Every painting in the show, like the rest of the Virginia and Bagley Wright collection, has been promised to SAM and is slated to become part of the permanent collection in the new building. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, recently visited the exhibit, and here is his review.
In his classic painting, "The Nightmare," 18th century artist Henry Fuseli depicts the torments of a sleeping femme fatale, a giant imp sitting atop her chest, a glow-eyed horse peering in from one side. In a sly and show-stopping update of the Fuseli, artist Katharina Fritsch replaces the sleeping woman with a prim plaster man tucked into a full-sized white bed. Tottering atop his chest is not a smirking troll, but an upright, eight-foot black resin mouse. This particular nightmare seems to come not so much from the deep corners of the subconscious, but from an overwrought Disney cartoon.
Contemporary artists tend to regard the tradition of the human form in art with a somewhat jaundiced eye, and ironic or satirical references to the figurative art of the past, like that of Fritsch, are a major motif in this very eclectic show.
Irony is clearly the stance of Venezuelan artist Meyer Vaisman. Employing the labor-saving strategy of appropriation, his piece is simplicity itself. A nearly monochromatic, vintage tapestry depicting a royal hunt is presented unaltered, the huntsmen searching in some confusion for their prey. Hiding in plain sight is a mincing figure — half-woman, half horse — that the artist has copied from a Disney cartoon and sewn onto the tapestry, a modern myth with no way of linking to the mythology of the past.
A different kind of disconnect is suggested by the leering, glossy statue of John the Baptist created by art provocateur Jeff Koons. Like all of Koons work, the garish, larger-than-life piece is a hybrid of gallery art and in-your-face kitsch. Based on Leonardo da Vinci’s painted version of the Baptist, the giant sculpture is also a takeoff on the ceramic virgins, saints, and crucifixions that fill the shelves of the devout but art-unaware of the world. While the devout might find a certain oddball appeal in the grinning, pointing John, there is scant biblical precedent for the gold-snouted pig and red-headed penguin swept up in the saint’s arms. Koons specialty is pushing buttons and pushing limits, and if one finds the result both striking and obnoxious, that comes with the territory.
Unlike the others present, painter John Currin actually mimics the techniques of the old masters his work so lovingly references. His beautifully painted female nude — an idealized, Barbie-doll version of his wife — regards us with innocent, dewy eyes while an array of butterflies cling to her body or cluster around her fingers. What Currin clearly shares with the others is the refusal to play it straight — his Venus is a tease, her exaggerated curves and insect counterparts a taunt to our conflation of nature, innocence, and desire.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a suite of photographs and paintings by Eric Fischl. Fischl has carved a niche out for himself as an observer of the sexual underside of contemporary bourgeois life, his edgy narratives painted in the style of John Singer Sargent on a very off day. His newest foray into the genre is a series of sexual encounters between a corpulent businessman and his svelte and underdressed female lover, the drama portrayed in both a series of rather blah photographs and one epic painting. While some regard Fischl as a modern master, he has always struck this observer as over-reaching, his spotty execution and resultant ugly surfaces never quite measuring up to his ambitions.
This exhibit includes strong pieces by artists on any curator’s wish list for a collection of contemporary art and thus will be a good match for the expanded SAM to come. As for the question of how many of these artists will be so valued years from now that artists of the future will be inspired to reference them — only time will tell.