What is genius anyway? Perpetually shifting in meaning, the term’s often been handed out to those misunderstood in their own time. To those who are just a step or two ahead of the game. Who can see where social, cultural or economic trends are leading, and shine a light on them before they’ve had time to fully bloom in the public eye. Genius as omen. In the Frye Art Museum’s ambitiously sprawling exhibit, “Genius / 21 Century / Seattle” (through January 10, 2016), the art has been provided by local artists who are decidedly alive and kicking. Made up of The Stranger newspaper Genius Award recipients-a group that includes artists or organizations in literature, film, music, visual and performing arts-the exhibit has much to say about the current state of the city’s affairs, and what they could in turn mean for its working artists.
Co-curated by Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and Erika Dalya Massaquoi, “Genius” features over 20 commissioned works and more than 65 artists, many of whom have created pieces responding to the city’s unprecedented growth. In 2013, the Census Bureau estimated that Seattle grew at a faster rate than any other American city, adding nearly 18,000 new residents. But anyone commuting throughout the Emerald City had already guessed as much. The drive through congested boulevards has more and more revealed the work of hard-hatters who seemingly overnight are the worker bees behind a kingdom of sleek and multiplying high-rise apartments and work spaces.
Thereafter (2015), an earthwork created by Lead Pencil Studio (Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo), uses a constructed mass of gravel, wood, steel and dirt located on an empty lot behind the Frye to reflect on Seattle’s many regrades-the first of which occurred in the mid-19th century, when over 45 million tons of dirt was lopped off of higher ground and used to fill lower ground to create pathways and increase land value. Several images of the altered topography, from more than a century ago, show properties perched atop a mountain of earth-the last architectural holdouts in defiance of rapidly changing landscape.
Artistic trio SuttonBeresCuller created You Always Leave Me Wanting More, in which nine looming arrows studded with flickering lights appear to bust through the Frye’s wood floor. Pointing in various directions skyward bound, they suggest that unlimited growth encompasses a lot more than sheer profits, not least of all environmental disruption and opposing goals. Victoria Haven’s Studio X subversively recalls the nine studios she’s had to move from prior to landing in her present digs in South Lake Union, where growth continues to impact the neighborhood with round-theclock demolition and construction. Using two time-lapse videos aimed out her current studio window, Haven captures the transformation of the neighborhood dubbed the Ama-zone, after its most prominent retailer.
Are there works that don’t address the city’s continued growth? Certainly. During the 16 weeks of the exhibit, attendees can attend a wealth of gallery talks, dance recitals, music performances and film and literary festivals, which respond to the museum’s inquiry into the role of the museum in the 21st century, as well as its place in the cultural and intellectual life of the city. There’s also a number of works that need little introduction to fully enjoy. Like the infinitely charming drawings of Seattle-based, self-taught cartoonist, Jim Woodring. Converted to 3-D, his drawings come to life, allowing audiences to step into the madcap scenes of his imagination, where buck-toothed cats give ailing trees hypodermic injections; caricatures split open at the waist to unleash the jetsam and flotsam of their cartoonish entrails; and the artist’s renowned character Frank appears equal parts tailed devil, caveman and creature of his own invention. Bob your head slightly and the atmosphere wiggles and wobbles without threat. Simply remove your 3-D glasses and you’ll find yourself back in the haven of the Frye’s gallery space. Not so for many of the other works in “Genius,” that suggest impending doom for those who dare to dream in a city made of steel. Sherman Alexie’s short story, Capitalism, vinyl-lettered to the gallery walls, tells the sad tale of a pair of would-be liberal landlords who invest everything into the creation of work/live spaces for artists. It all goes terribly awry with the discovery of black mold, a subsequent bankruptcy, their move to another city and their altered perception of their worth in the world.
There’s tremendously good work throughout the exhibit. And there’s a noble (and successful) effort on the part of the Frye to foster the co-mingling of divergent mediums, the blurring of genres, and the engagement of the public. It’s positively feel-good stuff. Then, there’s the work that miraculously crystalballs visitors into a most uncomfortable reality-that of an urban landscape whose changes today might well alter the face of artistic practice tomorrow. Bleak? Perhaps. Genius? Definitely.