Report: Seattle

A host of current and upcoming exhibitions parade Northwest arts au natural.

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Amphorae ca. 2010, Karen Hackenberg
Photo: courtesy Bainbridge Island Museum of Art and the artist

It used to be that the Northwest was known for its natural wonders-not its wondrous art. In the past couple of years the two have come together. A new institution is set in one of the most scenic areas of the region, and much of the art on display in Seattle and beyond is taking inspiration from the devolution of the natural world.

Bainbridge Island, about a 30-minute ferry ride from Seattle, is just enough off the beaten path that Manolo Blahniks quickly give way to Birkenstocks. But the recently opened Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) is not interested in catering to the tastes of citified sophisticates. It’s dedicated to showing the work of contemporary artists from the immediate area: the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas and the western Puget Sound region. At the 20,000 square foot museum, a five-minute stroll from the ferry dock, many of the exhibiting artists take the natural world as their inspiration. To note, of the eight exhibits currently on view, three reference natural elements in their title: Larry “Ulaaq” Ahvakana’s “Land/Water,” Karen Hackenberg’s “Watershed,” and George and David Lewis’s “Roof Garden.” Their new building-the product of collaboration between The Island Gateway developers, Coates Design architects and PHC Construction, and a $15.6 million capital campaign-is anticipating LEED Gold certification, due in part to the museum’s use of geothermal energy, solar power, and recycled materials like denim insulation. It was even featured in YES! Magazine (Powerful Ideas, Practical Actions), who hailed it as joining the green museum movement.

BIMA is not alone in recognizing that art and nature often walk hand in hand. In 2010, Bellevue Arts Museum launched the “BAM Biennial,” a juried exhibition that occurs every two years with a different focus of exploration. In 2014 the focus is on wood-a natural choice for a region whose pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago was hailed as “characteristic of a great timber state” (while the paintings contained within were all but ignored). “Knock on Wood” (which runs from October 31, 2014 – March 29, 2015) features the work of 39 established and emerging Northwest artists and craftsmen with an emphasis on new and recent work. The exhibition, intended in part, to celebrate the region’s distinctive character, does so without reducing it to stereotype. In other words, “Knock on Wood” has more to do with vision and a multi-talented group of artists than any kind of luck.

The Frye was for years a little-known gem in the heart of the city that housed an excellent, if often overlooked, collection of 19th century paintings amassed by major philanthropic Seattle supporters, Charles and Emma Frye. But it’s the most current show, which includes one Seattle artist and two “outsiders,” that best reflect the region’s interest in land, identity, and creative spirit. Alaskan artist Nicolas Galanin’s floor-bound sculpture Inert Wolf (2009), (see page 60) conceived as part of a travelling exhibit on humanity’s effect on the environment, depicts a lone wolf resurrecting itself from its trophy-kill skin. The back of the beast, ostensibly the past, lies dormant while the head and torso surge forth into the future. As Galanin explains, “Mainstream society often looks at Indigenous or Native American art through a romantic lens, not allowing a culture, like my Tlingit community, room for creative sovereign growth.”

Bullfrog, 2014, Ann Hamilton
Digital scan of a specimen from the University of Washington’s
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture Herpetology Collection
Photo: courtesy Henry Art Gallery and the artist

Seattle’s own Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes’ pelt series combines thrift store finds in the way of jackets, shoes, vintage fabric and patches that, pieced together, look like the skins of animals-a kind of reverse anthropomorphism in which human beings are pegged as human “types” or species. Nep Sidhu, from Toronto, toys with the idea of skin, outward appearances and identity by creating wearables that go beyond merely protecting their owners from the elements. Ancient texts are incorporated into pieces that function as talismans, prayers, portals into the spiritual realm, and weapons in their own right. The exhibit, steps away from the Frye’s permanent gilt-framed collection at the rear of the museum, is miles away in terms of content. While the Frye’s paintings make up Seattle’s cultural heritage, the content contained in “Your Feast Has Ended” lies closer to the region’s artists’ longstanding interest in land and identity.

In May of 2014, shortly after the opening of “Your Feast Has Ended,” the Frye’s esteemed curator, Scott Lawrimore, left to become the first director of the University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery. Also known as “The Jake,” the gallery is situated at the end of a corridor in the university’s basement. Lawrimore’s official duties will be the development and presentation of gallery exhibitions and programs, stewarding the school’s art collection, and acting as lecturer. With past endeavors, including his critically acclaimed gallery Lawrimore Project, he’s proven that he’s intent on testing art’s capacity to teach and engage the community.

He’s in good company. The Henry Art Gallery, also situated on the University of Washington campus, recently opened “Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E” (up through April 26, 2015). Hamilton made history in Seattle with her 1992 Henry exhibit “accountings,” during which time she covered the walls with candle soot, lined the floor with numbered steel tokens, and set 200 live canaries free in the gallery. For her new show, the internationally acclaimed artist turned to less lively creatures, borrowing from the Henry, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and the University Libraries Special Collections. She came away with fur, feather, and gut garments; scientific specimens; bestiaries and children’s alphabet books. They’re the bulk of an exhibition described by Hamilton as an accounting of the finitude and threatened extinctions we share across species.

Little more than a century ago, the Northwest was considered by many to be a backwater, filled with agricultural-but not cultural-resources. Those same resources, now an increasingly dwindling commodity, have become a popular focus for arts in the Northwest.

—SUZANNE BEAL