CRITIC’S PICKS: SEATTLE

by suzanne beal

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“Clinkers,” 2012, Leo Saul Berk
Duratrans, sculptural light box, 76″ x 64 5⁄8″ x 3 3⁄4″
Photo: courtesy Frye Art Museum

Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk spent his youth in the shadows of American architect, painter and musician, Bruce Goff. Berk, who grew up in Goff’s Ford House-a squat, onion-shaped residence as inspired as it was impractical-credits his childhood home with establishing his future career as an artist. Many of the unconventional building materials used in Goff’s house-Quonset hut style ribs, marbles, rope and a 70-foot wall of coal-find re-expression in Berk’s sculptural work. But there are also elements that steer clear of builderly representation to get at the physical experience: Berk describes pressing himself against the heated floors to stay warm-the architectural equivalent of a tree hug. The current exhibition of Berk’s artwork at the Frye Art Museum, titled “Structure and Ornament,” pays homage to Goff, but also to other visionary artist-architect types of the early 20th century, who married aesthetics with light, color, poetry and music in order to elevate their dwellers to an ecstatic state of unity with nature and with one another. Ultimately, the exhibition is a sensitively coded manifestation of the ways in which our exteriors and interiors bump up against one another: a meditation on how our homes offer us shelter from the storm, even as they shape us from within. “Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament,” can be seen at the Frye Art Museum, from May 30 – September 6, 2015.

“1996,” 2014, Patrick Puckett
Oil on canvas, 60″ x 48″
Photo: the artist, Courtesy Hall Spassov Gallery

At first glance, the Mississippi-born artist Patrick Puckett paints very pretty pictures of people he might know. But these “portraits”-of figures that fix the viewer with deadpan stares-only seem familiar. “They’re not people I know,” says Puckett, “but they could be people I know.” Like other Southern-bred creatives (think Flannery O’Connor or Harper Lee), Puckett relies on contrasts. But where his literary counterparts pit good against evil, Puckett plays light against darkness and color against shadow. He paints characters that are woefully out of sync with their surroundings: wedding-goers standing solemnly in a row; a lone man lost in thought amidst a lively crowd; a serious senior citizen holding a bouquet of flowers. Puckett lines up festive occasions such as barbeques, bars and beach scenes, only to call out their less amiable undersides. Bright colors are spread across the canvas with bold brushstrokes, shrouding his scenes with shimmering, absinthinian intensity. But anyone who has been in a party place following a romantic fracture, the mortality of a loved one, or a bad, bad case of the blues, knows that the contrast between the living and the lonely isn’t pretty. Luckily, Puckett is more interested in capturing what’s more than skin deep. A solo show of works by Patrick Puckett, at Hall Spassov Gallery, opens August 6, 2015.

“At the Nothing Doing,” 2015, Shannon McConnell
Oil on canvas, 30” x 20” Photo: courtesy Season

A Seattle-based artist and musician (The Fall-Outs, The Pulses), Shannon McConnell combines a raw, punk aesthetic with technical prowess in paintings and drawings that always seem to be in the process of becoming something else. Characters shaped like raw meat morph into their surroundings, which are often wild, unruly pseudo-landscapes of earthy color and rough form. Like members of the Northwest School, McConnell’s paintings appear psychologically charged and at one with the region in which they were created. More abstract than Morris Graves but more realistic than Guy Anderson, McConnell’s paintings exist in an organic no-man’s land, where fleshy tubular limbs (or are they tunnels?), and rocky mountains (or are they bodily curves?) merge, intertwine, and break away again. In the 1977 American exploitation horror film “The Hills Have Eyes,” a traveling family is preyed upon by a group of resident savages, themselves the product of their violent family history. The landscape and the people who live within it (as suggested by the title) have become one and the same. Similarly, McConnell, a Northwest native and the talented offshoot of artists like Anderson and Graves, sparks a violent visual storm made up of inner and outer realities. “Fingers That Touch the Sky,” a show of paintings and drawings by Shannon McConnell, runs at Season, from May 17 – July 16, 2015.

“Yahia, Tunis,” 2014, Scarlett Coten
Fine Art Print, 31 1⁄2″ x 47 1⁄4″
Photo: courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Arab culture has long fascinated Parisian-based photographer Scarlett Coten, who captures her subjects throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Her “Mectoub” project focuses on a young, urban generation of men, many of whom have demanded greater individual freedom since the Arab Spring: a revolutionary wave of protests, demonstrations, riots and civil wars in the Arab world that began in December of 2010. Since 2012, Scarlett Coten has photographed young men residing in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Palestine in order to challenge the western world’s vision of the Arab male. Approaching strangers, Coten asks them to pose for portraits in settings removed from their daily life. “I leave my subjects free to reveal something of their inner selves,” says Coten, “their personality, sensitivity, fragility or sensuality.” The word (and title) of the exhibition, “Mectoub” (or Mektoub) can be translated as, “it is written.” But Coten, with her sensitive portrayals, shows that few things are actually writ in stone. “In countries where freedom is hidden or hindered, exposing oneself is an act of rebellion, writes Coten. “In my role as a female foreigner, I challenge them to be as real as possible, offering them the opportunity to turn conventions upside-down.” “Scarlett Coten: Mectoub” can be seen at Mariane Ibrahim, from June 18 – July 25, 2015.

“The Leghorn Roosters Complete,” 2015, Gregory Blackstock
Graphite, marker and colored pencil on paper, 41 1/2″ x 32″
Photo: courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery

It was in the 1980s, while working as a pot-and-dish washer at the Washington Athletic Club (a job held for more than 25 years), that the illustrations of Seattle-based artistic (and autistic) savant Gregory Blackstock began appearing in the employee newsletter. His black-and-white drawings of the time catalogued an impossibly wide range of subjects in ink, pencil, marker and crayons-all of it executed freehand. In 2004, Blackstock introduced color into his work, and with it still more distinct categories (for example, the different shades of German Shepard Police Dogs, cauliflowers or stalks of asparagus). Webster’s New International Dictionary has been an inspiration as are any objects that can be defined by the loud noises that make. There is beauty in multitudes. For it is in multitudes that one becomes privy to the infinite nuances that are at the core of each object’s individuality. Fish and fowl, insects, baskets, stringed musical instruments, prisons, turkeys-are each and every one collected in rows and neatly annotated with Blackstock’s tidy script. Gertrude Stein may have insisted that a rose is a rose is a rose. But by documenting infinite variations on a theme, Blackstock has proven otherwise. “Gregory Blackstock: Drawing,” goes on view at Greg Kucera Gallery from July 2 – August 29, 2015.

“It Is Written In The Stars,” 2014, Kymia Nawabi
Acrylic, glitter, ink, sticker and watercolor on paper
48″ x 48″
Photo: courtesy Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art

Faced with a pervasive fear of death, Kymia Nawabi explores various mythological systems, incorporating them back into her work in an effort to relieve an overriding anxiety brought about by our imminent mortality. It might also be her way of gaining the upper hand. The Iranian-American artist borrows symbols from the pantheon of various religions. But instead of reproducing them with gilt, precious gems and velvet, Nawabi incorporates glitter and stickers into delicate drawings and paintings, featuring bird-headed creatures, funereal processions, snakes and fire pits. In 2011, Nawabi was a season 2 contestant on, and winner of, Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist”-an American reality show competition in which up-and-coming artists compete for a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum along with a hefty cash prize. Produced by Pretty Matches Productions and Magical Elves Productions (the same company that created Project Runway and Top Chef), the show could have been a simple indicator of populist opinion. Instead, it’s proof that religion can be more than a source of facile fascination, or worse, an instigator of war. It can, in the right hands, be a formidable weapon in the fight (in the words of Elvis Costello) for peace, love and understanding. “Kymia Nawabi,” a solo show, runs from August 24 – September 26, 2015, at Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art.