John Grade’s large-scale, site-specific pieces are peripatetic. They are carried on the backs of humans, cast into the sea, left to decompose on mountaintops. Each work realizes an exhibition and life cycle that crisscrosses both the buttoned-up spaces of institutions and the elements of the wilderness, often ending that premeditated cycle relinquished to nature and gradual decay. Based on his current roster of projects, it’s hard to place many other artists in the Pacific Northwest who are working at such scale.
To that point, Grade (pronounced grah-dee) currently splits his time between two studios. The old one-which he’s outgrown-looks like a walk-in curiosity cabinet. Covering the walls are his many prints and schematics, rendered in charcoal, of past and yet-imaginary installations. From the vaulted ceiling, large glass baubles-hand-blown objects to resemble the glass floats that still wash up on Alaskan shores-are suspended from ropes, like an exploded chandelier. Actual wooden curio cabinets that would make a Victorian envious punctuate the space. Behind their glass panes are lovingly arranged bleached bones: skulls of horse, beaver, deer; also the fragile, violet husks of urchin, tiny specimen jars with cork stoppers, and calcified chunks of coral. Bookcases spill over with a naturalist’s library of tomes covering all things wilderness, philosophical and art.
Grade’s newer studio, located nearby and just a stone’s throw from Seattle’s Rainier Beach light rail station, is cavernous, located in an old food processing warehouse with celestial ceilings dappled in streams of slanted, spring light. One of the chambers is filled with a dozen assistants working at breakneck speed to complete Spur, a piece inspired by the lava tubes at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. The wooden piece snakes through the warehouse like the carcass of a monster, the massive ribs of which are blackened, its insides charred to make a finish Grade calls “fireman’s black.” The structure is 42 feet long and more than big enough to walk through.
The grind of sanders and saws all but drowns out Grade’s voice as he explains how he and a team of videographers went underground and scanned the inside of a 400-foot lava tube beneath the monument’s site. Grade’s reproduction records an impossible amount of detail, including the impressions of bats hanging overhead, captured in the scan. In May 2016, the piece was installed at Craters of the Moon. After six months there, it will be permanently relocated to Ketchum, Sun Valley. Despite the energy of the studio, one suspects Grade would rather be back spelunking the lava tubes of Idaho-or anywhere in the wild. After earning his BFA from Pratt Institute in NY in 1992, he postponed a graduate degree to travel (a travel grant offered by the school during his final year was transformative; he never did go on to pursue an MFA). He spent the next six years crossing some 70 countries, pausing to work construction for two months of each year to pay for the next 10. “It was on the cheap,” Grade says. “It was an important education, much more so than grad school.”
When he finally settled in Seattle, mountaineering became an obsession to replace traveling. “It became a funny thing, maybe a little out of control,” he says, “when your art is your day job to support your climbing habit. There was a phase when I had to back off of climbing because the art started taking off. I always think I can return to climbing later,” he says wistfully. Along with the many curios and works of art, Grade’s old studio is conspicuously filled with as many neatly arranged backpacks and climbing gear. “Maybe when I’m in my 60s.”
At the time of his arrival to Seattle in the mid-’90s, Grade was constructing sculptures that reflected his obsession with the outdoors: works mimicking the honeycomb structures of lotus pods and beehives, or the undulations of ruffling coral. He also produced a body of smaller-scale drawings that were exhibited regularly at Davidson Galleries. In the charcoal renderings, feathery abstractions melt into one another: squiggles, clouds, ovoids, flagella and other mysterious detritus suspended in a cloudy ether-whispers of some fantastical, amoebic, biological world lurking just beneath the skin of things. Other drawings resemble smudged and dreamy images of imagined installations, structures set in wide spaces or suspended above bodies of water.
Some of those installations he realized, like the multiple iterations of his 2010 Elephant Bed Series, which were created and shown at Davidson Galleries, the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA, and in Brighton, UK, at Fabrica. For the project, he created dozens of bulbous, bottom-heavy structures with wispy, spindly tips. Made of a binderless paper that dissolves instantly on contact with liquid, and stretched over an armature of biodegradable plastic ribs, the pieces were inspired by a type of phytoplankton that blooms beneath the surface of the sea near Dover. When it dies, it calcifies and sinks, amassing on the ocean floor. At Fabrica, the pieces were exhibited dangled over basins of black ink, tethered by single filament threads that could be manipulated, raised and lowered, by visitors. At the end of the exhibit, half the sculptures were lowered and dissolved in the ink; the other half were carried to the edge of the English Channel, where they were cast off to liquify in the waves.
The role of time, deterioration and chance continue to factor at the core of installations like Wawona, commissioned in 2012 by the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, constructed from the remains of a 1897 wood schooner. The 11,000 pound, 65-foot sculpture is suspended from the upper trusses of the building; its top punctures the ceiling and its bottom pierces the floor. The portions of the sculpture that extend beyond the protective enclosure of the historic Naval Armory will rot over time, leaving only the mid-section intact. Similarly left to the whim of its surroundings, Grade’s Canopy Tower, commissioned by the Austin Contemporary Museum in 2015 and installed along a trail beside Lake Austin, allows visitors to stand beneath a hollow 16-foot tall tubular chamber made from Ipe hardwood. With its lower half tethered and stationary, its circular top is suspended 40 feet above, anchored to three neighboring trees. As the wind stirs the grove, the top of the canopy sways with it, its many panels clanking and clattering in strong gusts.
Even beyond Grade, Seattle has long inspired artists working with urban environmentalism as a subtext. Among the pioneers is Buster Simpson, who since the 1960s has documented the demolition of urban neighborhoods, placed guerrilla art where it should not go: stenciling agitprop messages on sidewalks or installing sculpture that erodes or changes over time in concert with the surroundings. Simpson’s long-term projects involve the transformation of city streets in densely populated downtown neighborhoods to green spaces, as well as designing alternatives for businesses and homeowners to collect rainwater and other sources of urban watershed that would otherwise contribute to an overflow of untreated sewage dumped into Puget Sound.
Among a younger generation of artists, Sarah Bergmann has received acclaim for her Pollinator Pathway, which uses botanical engineering to create superhighways for bee populations. Bergmann collaborates with the city of Seattle and both businesses and homeowners to plant pollinator-friendly gardens across hundreds of public and privately owned lawns, which when in bloom steer the migration of pollinators through the city and beyond.
“What I find intriguing about Grade’s work is the way in which he extends our understanding of sculpture and process,” says Catharina Manchanda, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Seattle Art Museum. “His cast of forms and objects from nature are always surprising because the resulting sculptures are so large they become environments. What’s truly unique to me is that his objects are temporal, and are meant to become landscape in the future.”
To be around Grade, amongst his clutter of gear and his collection of exquisite dead things, there is a sense of memento mori mixed with a joie de vivre that locates the most intense pleasure far removed from anything urban. Generationally sandwiched between Simpson and Bergmann, the 46-year-old’s work is a meditation on the varying roles of human intervention in nature. The premeditated entropy of his pieces can be read as funerary in tone, deferential to nature’s process; in contrast to work intended to exact change in urban environments, his work is a testament that man-made intervention should never imagine its impact extends beyond the eventuality -or improves on the sensuality-of rot and return.
At the same time that Grade’s work leans into entropy, it also seduces the viewer to connect physically. Harkening to his fanaticism for climbing, one current project involves grafting a completed sculpture to a cliffside. “It’s this real athletic thing,” Grade says. “I think that is something missing in a lot of art: there’s this performative element that comes into a lot of these pieces. Much of it is about how it moves or how people interact with it. But I think the aspect of making a work more athletic in essence really appeals to me.”
Still, Grade shies from his projects taking on the character of man pitted against nature, as exhibitionist myth making to showcase the survival of the fittest. “I don’t really see it in a Mathew Barney way,” he says, “where it’s a fashion thing or about being watched. I see it as about the doing, which is kind of hard to pull off, because the theatrical is such an easy and compelling way to bring people around to supporting your work, so how do you engage people to actually do instead of merely observe?”
It’s one thing to talk the talk, but one of Grade’s recent projects has demanded more personal and durational engagement than anything to date. When Anchorage Museum’s director Julie Decker commissioned Grade to create site-specific work responding to the environment, the museum provided funding for Grade to spend extensive stints of time above the Arctic Circle, to experience it in full. “Her idea was that you wouldn’t just romanticize it,” Grade says. “You’re actually out there living it. We’re also showing the work to an audience up there, which helps you think about not romanticizing it. You’re not gonna get the cheap stuff out of those people.”
On one of many expeditions of the past three years, Grade and his wife Maria were flown into the wilderness on a four-person beaver plane, along with their gear and an inflatable boat for maneuvering deeper into the country for the following few weeks. Their destination was a lonely grove of trees located about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where foliage technically shouldn’t grow. One hour braving intense winds, the next clothed in mosquito netting to protect against ferocious insect swarms, the couple made full-size plaster and cloth casts of the trees. The process took days.
“When we arrived, there was a grizzly bear who wouldn’t leave for a day and a half, so we just had to wait,” he says. “Many of the animals have never seen people. Grizzly bears, foxes. They don’t know what you are, that you’re a dangerous thing. There was one fox that sauntered over and just peed on my leg.”
The completed cast was cut to pieces small enough to fit in their boat for the return trip. Among other works generated during this time for Grade’s “Polar Lab” exhibit is his kinetic sculpture called Murmur. Combining the structure of arctic ice formations and the flight patterns of birds, the piece harnesses electromagnetic fields to manipulate a giant mobile made of 10,000 movable parts that explode, contract, and coalesce depending on the interaction of viewers.
In April 2014, Grade embarked on a project similar to his arctic tree casting, but closer to home, spending two days in the Cascade Foothills in Washington, near the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River. Using the same old-fashioned cloth and plaster technique, he cast the entirety of a single old growth hemlock. Returning to the Mad Art Studio located in the heart of Amazon headquarters in South Lake Union area of Seattle, Grade and a team of over a hundred volunteers recreated the tree as a sculpture that conformed to the contours of the cast, creating a hollow doppelganger assembled from hundreds of thousands of interlocking one-quarter inch wood pieces carved from salvaged cedar. The piece, called Middle Fork, is a 45-foot-long porous lacework skeleton of the tree turned on its side and suspended mid-air with branches spanning 20-feet across. Gazing into the hollowed-out monolith reveals an arterial cavern, as much resembling a primordial tomb as a womb-similar to the vacuous entrails of Grade’s lava tube.
After its stint in Seattle, the piece traveled to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. In May, the Seattle Art Museum announced that Middle Fork will be the next major installation in its main entrance lobby, replacing Cai Guo Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One. When the piece has finished its exhibition cycle, Grade will return it to the site of the living tree from which it was cast, resting it at the foot of the hemlock. There it will be left to age, rot and accumulate moss like a manufactured nurse log- like all of Grade’s work, a peculiar offering returned to the earth.
Sink and Resist, 2004
Charcoal on paper, 22″ x 28″
Photo: courtesy the artist