Photo: Visitor with Pixel at Thinking Currents Exhibit
It’s getting harder to maintain Seattle’s inferiority complex. Notorious and proud of our underachiever status—we’re not New York or Los Angeles …and thank god for that—our city’s been, well, winning a lot lately. It’s not usually in our character to flash a thousand-watt smile when the spotlight’s on us, but that’s exactly what the Seattle arts community did this weekend when the country’s attention was focused on the inaugural Seattle Art Fair and the satellite events orbiting it.
The first major art fair in Seattle since the mid-1990s, this new Seattle Art Fair emerged from the forge of Vulcan—er, Paul Allen. Inspired by the format of the Venice Biennale—with pavilions and site-specific installations dotting the landscape—the concept of the Fair was to show off Seattle’s chops as both a collecting market and a creative hub. The results were seen by a reported 11,000 people at the CenturyLink Expo Center over the last three days in a hectic, uneven – but enthusiastic- explosion of arts events.
To set it apart from other art fairs, Seattle’s fair was supposed to center around a theme: the Pacific Rim. Early press materials gushed about Asian galleries “presenting the best of their region’s contemporary artwork,” demonstrating Seattle’s ties to Asia’s art markets (and economies). Local galleries were warned that there would be precious few slots for them, and to expect heavy competition from foreign gallerists. But when the jury selection was announced, the numbers didn’t bear out. Seattle and Portland gallerists snagged 17 booths, California 10, and Vancouver barely deigned to get out of bed with 2 spots. Only 4 galleries made the trip across the Pacific—2 from Tokyo, and Seoul and Hong Kong 1 each. Meanwhile, New York showed up in force with a whopping 22 booths. Less Pacific Rim, more U.S. Route 20.
The presence of those Manhattan galleries was a boon in some ways: they made the locals look that much better. Toting their sparkliest objects across the country to attract collectors like you would a raccoon—oooh, shiny!—a good amount of the imported work was all flash and no substance. Do Chelsea gallerists think our arts patrons so podunk as to be floored by a seven-year-old be-chromed Takashi Murakami anime lion? Seen it. Or yet another Dan Flavin neon—yanked out of the context that made his early works mysterious and unique—set out like an IKEA furnishing? Ivan Navarro’s clever use of neon and mirrors to make his Conduit #1 could also sum up the feel of a lot of the imported works in the Fair: a glowing tunnel leading absolutely nowhere.
By contrast, Seattle, Portland, and the Asian galleries looked young, strong, and fresh. For Seattle gallerists, having the fair in their own backyard allowed them to choose works not based on portability or durability, but quality. A veteran of many fairs, Stephen Lyons of Platform Gallery expressed relief at not having to crate or ship work. Nodding to Scott Fife’s massive cardboard sculpture of Elvis’ head on the floor between us, he laughed: “I just wrapped this guy up in bubble-wrap and walked it over.” Other locals were just thrilled they got to sleep in their own beds each night. Rather than rely on surface and flash to make sales and justify bringing the contents of the gallery across the country, local gallerists showed work that inspired deeper engagement and rewarded analysis. PUNCH Gallery was a smorgasbord of the bizarre and wonderful; Portland’s Upfor Gallery was a candy-colored wonderland of digital media and plastic arts; Abmeyer + Wood got my vote for best environment, with dark, elegant walls to set off a sumptuous collection of William Morris’ glass; PDX Contemporary boasted an impressive variety of top-notch work; and powerhouse Mariane Ibrahim Gallery made me grateful that she calls Seattle her home.
No one can accuse Vulcan and fair organizers ArtMarket Productions of thinking too small: the weekend was filled with moving parts, some of which hummed along while others clunked. At the core concept of the fair were the off-site projects, dubbed “Pure Research”. While the bulk of the fair took place at the Expo center, patrons could also board shuttles that would whisk them to view the projects installed all over the city. A list of sixteen possible places for off-site projects was originally released to select artists, but only four were chosen and funded—six, if you count the hard-to-find billboards scattered randomly around the city with their Fair hashtags. Some of the more esoteric and intriguing possible places that weren’t utilized included a tiny alley in Georgetown, the top of the Volunteer Park Water Tower, and a station in the downtown Bus Tunnel. With so few sites activated, the projects felt disconnected from the bustling action, far-off and random. Based on the Fair’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, not many people escaped the gravity well of CenturyLink to visit them.
A better outcome was “Thinking Currents”, an exhibit staged inside—yet separate from–the Fair. To further the Pacific Rim theme, guest curator Leeza Ahmady brought together international artists whose practices relate to the Pacific Rim. The theme was a stretch—couldn’t half the artists in the fair claim at least a tenuous relationship to the Pacific?–but the result was an engaging exhibit of video works. Bringing many more international artists to the fore, the exhibit helped maintain the idea that this was a global fair with far reaching implications and import. An oasis of darkness and retrospection, the curtained-off exhibit was a welcome place to focus on the art, instead of on dollar signs and eagle-eyed gallerists.
So, there’s the conundrum: it was hard to focus on and connect with the work in the Fair because of the vast amount of it, and it was displayed in a daunting, white-walled maze. And it was easier to engage and focus on the work in the Thinking Currents exhibit—but that work wasn’t for sale. Was there a better way to see, think about, and buy art? Yes, and it was local curators—not Art Market Productions—who figured it out.
Just blocks away from the Art Fair was Out of Sight, an exhibit of over one hundred local artists curated by dream team Kirsten Anderson & Sharon Arnold (co-directors of Roq La Rue Gallery), Sierra Stinson (of apartment-gallery Vignettes), and Greg Lundgren (from everything Seattle-arts- related ever). This show—mounted on the rarely-seen third floor of the King Street Station–combined the ease of viewing you’d get at an art museum, the price tags of the art fair, and the feeling of being invited to a secret party by the cool kids. Whereas the Expo Center was a warren of anonymous, sterile white walls, the Station was a welcoming, unique space made instantly iconic by murals and installation work. Artists were asked to contribute new or best works, and the result was a galvanizing survey of contemporary Northwest art.
Without a central theme, the pieces pinballed from cerebral to commercial (not as dirty a word as many would have it), to playful. Only one work got political and personal—that’s C. Davida Ingram’s wrenching “Where Can My Black Ass Go to Be Safe?”–and it made me wish it had some companions. Some works were site-specific or commissioned for the exhibit: the crowd favorite “impossible monument…” by Mary Ann Peters and MKNZ used hundreds of pounds of pressed flour to echo the furbished ceiling of the King Street Station. Tivon Rice presented digital photographs of construction sites around the Station, warped and glitched enough to give you brain freeze. These were made from some kind of technical wizardry involving GoPros attached to the arms of the Station clock as they ticked around–curator Stinson freely admitted she wasn’t exactly sure how it was all done, but we agreed the outcome expertly channeled anxieties about over-construction and gentrification in the city.
Best of all were those little red dots next to many of the works in Out of Sight. They signaled that it doesn’t take an army of Manhattan gallerists, a billionaire backer, and first class collectors to make a vital, productive art scene in Seattle. It was already here, ready and waiting in plain sight. To Gagosian and company: keep your platinum lions and disco balls. We’re good. To Seattle’s gallerists, artists, and curators, from an invigorated city, shaking off its inferiority complex: thanks for a great weekend. See you next year.