The Western Bridge, an alternative art space in Seattle’s industrial corridor that opened last year, has gathered rave reviews for its challenging shows of contemporary art. Founded by local art patrons Bill and Ruth True, Western Bridge features works from their own extensive collection, presented in thematic shows and spread over two floors and 11,000 square feet.
The most recent exhibit, entitled, The River Styx, includes video, photography, and installations by eight noted artists from the United States and abroad. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, has just visited, and he joins us with his observations.
One of the hallmarks of recent contemporary art has been its enshrinement of the difficult, the obscure, and the challenging. For many artists, work that is “accessible” and “easily understood” can seem uncomfortably close to the superficial. Partly as a result, viewer incomprehension and mystification in the face of many modern artworks is a familiar experience. But is not “getting it” a problem? And if it is, is it our problem, or the artist’s?
"The River Styx," the central installation in the current show at Western Bridge, will certainly present a puzzle to the uninitiated. A site-specific work, it was commissioned by Western Bridge founders Bill and Ruth True from the German artist Daniel Roth, who was invited to visit the area and create a work based on his experiences. The resulting piece, an extension of work previously exhibited elsewhere, is spread out between two very spare rooms, one directly above the other. The upper room is centered on the most interesting object in the installation, a shallow, rectangular pond, filled with ominous black water. On the wall a fragment of text discusses the relations between the living and the dead, and two framed panels display photographs and drawings alluding to buildings, dark basement spaces, and passages.
The lower room is centered by a large scale model of an Olympic coast sea stack, realistic in color and detail save for the deep hole in its surface surmounted by a round wooden tower. On the wall are photographs of similar coastal rock forms paired with enigmatic architectural drawings of stairways and elevator shafts.
According to the artist, the installation expresses his vision of an imaginary tunnel connecting a correctional facility in Chicago with the wild Pacific Coast, a transition between the worlds of the living and the dead like the mythical underground River Styx.
Everything about this installation expresses skill, taste, intellectual sophistication, and an affinity for progressive currents in contemporary art, but it’s still a failure. Like a connect-the-dots drawing with too few dots, the Roth piece appears as a collection of intriguing fragments, fragments which stubbornly refuse to coalesce into a compelling vision or experience, certainly not the vision the artist himself describes. Openendedness can be a successful way to engage viewers with an artwork, but here it seems more a dodge than a tool: “Okay, here’s some parts — you do the work.”
Another major work in the exhibit, a 1996 piece by Roni Horn called "You are the Weather," also left me unmoved. Here 100 closely cropped photographs of a single woman’s face fill all four walls of a huge white room, with the images arranged in groups — black-and-white, washed out color, high contrast. The photos, taken over several weeks in various outdoor hot springs in Iceland, are purposely composed to be as identical as possible, the only variation being slight changes in expression, changes which presumably grow all the more dramatic and telling as our familiarity with the subject increases. This turns out to be too thin a concept to animate a work so big and sprawling, and what was meant to be subtle and engaging seems instead dry and monotonous — more like the face on a sheet of postage stamps than an evolving close-up in a film by Ingmar Bergman, clearly the sort of model the artist had in mind.
Perhaps photographer Horn’s desire to capture a sense of emotion and intimacy over time is also inspired by the far more successful series on a similar theme by Nicholas Nixon, installed in the apartment gallery upstairs. Nixon’s deservedly-famous documentary project portrays the four Brown sisters in group photographs taken over a 30-year span. The resulting portraits are astonishingly revealing and uninhibited, the women completely at ease before the camera and with each other. Particularly remarkable is the variety that Nixon achieves within the tight limits of his formula — the photographs are all identical in format, the sisters always in the same order, yet the resulting compositions manage to be both surprising and inventive, the depicted connections between the women always evolving. Although these photos have been included in many books, it’s instructive to see the original works, as the images are taken with a large format camera and contact printed for maximum detail and resolution.
Also engaged by the theme of time and mortality is Seattle-based video artist Gary Hill, here represented by a harrowing but powerful work from 2000 entitled "Wall Piece". In the video, projected life-size, Hill appears to throw himself repeatedly against the gallery wall, each impact punctuated by a burst of strobe light and the concussive sound of a body hitting a solid surface. The artist recites — with difficulty — his own essay on aging and disembodiment: “I feel (BAM) abandoned by the (BAM)...real I’m (BAM) going, watching (BAM) myself go (BAM)...movement (BAM) eludes me.” What is this wall, and why is the artist throwing himself against it? Is it the barrier between him and us, between the depicted and the actual, or is it that thin membrane separating life and death? Is the rawness of the physical act meant to shock, or simply to denote frustration? What is our role in this drama, as spectator?
When a piece of contemporary art works, it can bring up such issues in a fresh and unexpected way, doing something important, for perhaps the first time. This is the attraction in collecting such works, but it is also the challenge. After the passage of time, an inevitable sorting process makes the job of the museum or collector much simpler — witness the relatively short list of artists now considered significant from the 1940s or '50s. For collectors like the Trues, on the other hand, devoted to the art of Now, there are far fewer guideposts as to what’s worthwhile, other than the judgment of a relatively small group of dealers, curators and critics, the wisdom of the marketplace, and their own intuition. The resulting collection, with its hits and misses, is certain to provide interesting viewing at the Western Bridge for some time to come, the best local vantage point that we have, besides the Henry, on the Latest, if not necessarily, the Greatest.