It is the day before the opening of Lawrimore Project, and Scott Lawrimore is wearing an ash-blue jump suit filthy from months of construction work. It looks sort of like a flight suit. He is hosting a preview, but he isn't entertaining anyone. He is carrying a pail of concrete sealant that will finish the remaining walls of his gallery—seven inimitable rooms that almost no one has seen yet but which for months have been the subject of gossip.
Lawrimore trained at Seattle's Greg Kucera, Davidson, and Foster/White galleries, but anyone who expected him to build a gallery in that mold—understated, neutrally elegant—was seriously mistaken. Lawrimore Project is unlike any art gallery in Seattle. It's unlike most galleries.
"There's no real visible address," one of Lawrimore's workers, who also happens to be the artist Zac Culler, explains into a phone, and it sounds like a metaphor. From the exterior, the anonymous concrete building squatting next to the old immigration center on Airport Way leaves absolutely no impression, and there is nothing to say about it, except that for four decades it was home to Popich Sign Co. The mystique of anonymity was convenient because it allowed Lawrimore to keep the location secret, but it also fueled doubt that Lawrimore Project would ever open. When its original February opening date was pushed back, and March and April passed with no new schedule, it seemed as if Lawrimore had run out of money and steam.
Actually, he and a handful of workers were knee-deep in construction so baroquely detailed that the schedule had to go out the window. Everything took far longer than planned. The first room's walls are covered in 170 panels of concrete backerboard, the stuff you normally put behind tiled walls. Each panel was hand-sanded and screwed in place with a different configuration of screws. The room, made to accommodate large sculpture and installation—like the 32-by-12-by-12-foot box performance artists SuttonBeresCuller are currently inside, creating something mysterious—is a double-height gallery with four boxy skylights.
The Seattle artist-architect team of Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo designed everything, including a door whose style I can only describe as medieval-Californian, hung with what look like black steel blinds. Nearby is a small bathroom where a mustache is laser-cut into the mirror at mouth level. Duchamp once painted a mustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa and added letters to it that sound out, in French, "She has a hot ass." "Everyone has a hot ass at Lawrimore Project," Lawrimore says dryly.
Beyond the front room, a white-cube gallery and a black-box theater (for video projection and events) face Lawrimore's office. The office is a freestanding shack set on cinder blocks on the bamboo floor. The shack is made of plywood, but is painted to look like aluminum. (Sort of. The grains and eyes of the plywood are still visible.) Non-matching panels of salvaged shower-door glass form its windows, and the reception desk, jutting out from the shack like the counter of a burrito truck, is Hello Kitty pink. A tampon box is embedded next to the door like a mail slot. The door is also recycled, from Roosevelt High School. It carries its old function with it in black letters that read "Work Experience Coordinator."
The flooring inside the shack is tough, slightly hairy, and turf-colored, like something you might see at the entrance to an Elks Lodge in Palm Springs. Two giant floodlights with yellow metal shades loom above. The view out the shack's window is of a small concrete courtyard for outdoor art, enclosed by a chain-link and barbed-wire fence and a wall of hulking, stained concrete blocks—just what Lawrimore found there when he moved in. The courtyard faces a brick industrial plant once owned by meatpacking tycoon and art collector Charles Frye.
Best of all for wealthy collectors like Frye would be the terminal point of Lawrimore Project, the spot Lawrimore calls "the closing room," for closing deals—after all, he is in the business of selling—which has a brandy-snifter backroom feel, with its fireplace and mantel, long dining table, and benches made of a richly marbled plywood that has the dramatic chiaroscuro of a painting. Even when the room is wide open to the public during the day, you sense its after-hours persona.
Every room at Lawrimore Project is animated with some knowing spirit, whether it is the modernist priest of the white cube, the impresario of the black box, the prankster of the bathroom, or the skinny, chain-smoking trailer-trash of the shack. By consistently using cheap materials and either transforming them into something that looks precious or exploiting their cheapness for irony, designers Han and Mihalyo have captured something about Seattle's newest dealer, who is 36 years old: He likes to play. Throughout the protracted construction process, he signed all e-mail correspondences with a quote from the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan that reads, "I will finish what I star." This is not all a formal exercise; during a walk-through this spring, he told me that he grew up in a trailer park, and his parents still own one. (They pronounce their name "Lair"; he uses "Lorr.") His office shack is a self-portrait, both homage and send-up, confession and whitewash. It is in play, which makes it great. (But I do not endorse Han and Mihalyo's wish to make a step stool for the shack that looks like a Jolly Rancher, on Disney/Candyland/whimsy grounds.)
For all these reasons and more—the 5,000-square-foot gallery feels as spacious and diverse as a small museum—Lawrimore Project is by far the sexiest place to experience art locally. On Lawrimore's roster are (from Seattle) Han and Mihalyo, SuttonBeresCuller, Cris Bruch, Sami Ben Larbi, and Tivon Rice; Kerry Skarbakka of New York, and Claudia X. Valdes of San Francisco. Lawrimore hopes the attitude of the architecture will help him woo Charles LaBelle, Harrell Fletcher, Miranda July, Sabrina Raaf, and Liz Cohen. He'd also love to represent preeminent Seattle video artist Gary Hill, but Hill "doesn't know me from the projection of a hole in the ground," Lawrimore quips.
The danger of having so much personality is winking too much, putting too much in quotes, being too sexy—and in doing so, exaggerating the sexy aspects of the art at the expense of its quieter qualities. SuttonBeresCuller were probably the wrong artists to start out with, since the enormous box they've erected to block out the prized front gallery is, like some of their photographs, a quick-hit, Dadaistic joke, and any event can sustain only so many mustaches. But you can't help cheering Lawrimore's fearlessness and wry humor. The opening party was firstname.lastname@example.org