Eye of the Storm
In less than two years of existence, Lawrimore Project has become historic, notorious, and centripetal. It has changed the course of contemporary art in Seattle. How the hell did that happen?
Photos by Adam L. Weintraub
Susie Lee wanted to make a storm. It is not an easy thing to do. It's especially not easy for an artist who's never had a solo show in a commercial gallery before. She's represented by Lawrimore Project, which means she had 8,000 square feet to fill—an area that would give any artist fits of ecstasy and terror. The first room you enter at Lawrimore Project, the room she envisioned filling with her storm, is 5,000 square feet.
Lee had another life before this—a career teaching math and science. Her parents have had two lives, too: They left Korea for the United States in their late 20s, the same age Lee was when she decided to become an artist. They never got to be adults in the country where they'd grown up; the part of her life she was living was the part they'd lost. She didn't set out to do this on purpose, but everything she makes has a physical side and a digital side, a solid side and a shadowy side—a missing half.
For her first big solo show, her coming-out party in the art world, when you walked in out of the real rain, she wanted you, for all sorts of reasons, to confront the virtual twin of what you'd just left behind.
First you'd find yourself in total darkness. Disorientation. There would be a several-second wait before anything happened, and in that time, you'd have no idea what was around you or who was in the room with you. As your eyes began to adjust, a crack of thunder would erupt from nowhere and the rain would start, building to a crescendo of drops hitting the floor—all achieved with only light and sound. It would be beguiling, and familiar, and unfamiliar, and then it would disappear, and for several minutes you'd be left in the dark again, wondering what just happened, wanting to feel it again, forced to wait.
This is how the storm existed in Lee's mind. Inventing an enormous unwieldy installation from absolutely nothing, creating something huge that had never existed before—that's another matter. Young artists are not known for trying to make their own weather. This was something that, if it failed, would fail big.
Lee went to Yale for molecular biophysics and biochemistry, then to Columbia for a master's degree in education, then taught in East Coast high schools, got married, got divorced—she's done a million things in a million places, but she didn't know the first thing about lights. She called a friend who'd once been a lighting designer off-Broadway, who took her to a place called Hollywood Lighting in South Seattle. In addition to the storm, Lee was making five other pieces from scratch to fill the remaining 3,000 square feet of exhibition space. She only had $12,500, which she earned as a science tutor, to pay for the whole thing.
The storm-system ideas of the Hollywood Lighting people were beyond her budget. She would have to build this installation one tiny light at a time.
It was a graduate student at DXArts, the University of Washington's art and technology program, who tipped off Lee to buying cheap LEDs directly from Hong Kong on eBay. She ordered 2,000 and found a California company that could ship 125 panels of black foam core—more expensive than white, but storms are dark—on a truck already bound for Seattle from Arizona.
The foam core, in a grid attached to the ceiling, would hold the lights overhead. But the first test panel Lee tried at her house didn't project discrete raindrops on the floor, just one big puddle. Light dissipates.
So she called in the photographers. They told her about snoots, long tunnels you can attach to your camera's flash to narrow the light. But snoots are big, and LEDs are miniscule. If Lee wanted LED snoots, she'd have to invent LED snoots. The DIY answer: little cardboard tubes that spool credit-card receipts. This led Lee to McCallum Inc., a small warehouse in a residential neighborhood on Lake City Way. The salesman said he could cut the tubes to six inches each with a machine, but after his machine broke, he ended up cutting 2,000 improvised miniature snoots by hand.
From a frantic drawing in which Lee jabbed a pen on a piece of blank paper—simulating the speed at which the rain was supposed to fall—James Coupe wrote a computer program to control the imaginary storm. Coupe is an artist himself (and teacher at DXArts) who specializes in mechatronics, the art and science of writing custom programs that can control pretty much anything. He also happens to be Lee's fiancé.
But—are you gathering how complicated this is?—there would be so many circuits involved in connecting the LEDs to the panels, the panels to each other and to microcontrollers, and microcontrollers to the main system and the wall, that Lee would have to solder together 13,000 connections of wire and metal. Lee can solder, but she only had three weeks left. Asking her friends for help turned out to be the best part of making the show.
Her friends and her sister's friends—hordes of people—came from all over, about 10 people per party. They came to Lee's Broadview house from Kirkland, Redmond, Shoreline, Capitol Hill, Green Lake, Maple Leaf, West Seattle, Wallingford, the Central District, and the International District. They came four times for several hours each time. There were soldering parties in the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the carport, the closet. When Lee had her doubts that this storm was ever going to really happen, she had lots of people telling her not to give up, and reminding her that, at that point, she couldn't.
When the show opened at Lawrimore Project on October 11, Elysha Rose Diaz, who had learned to solder so she could help, walked into the dark room that night—and nothing happened. She froze. She was mortified for Lee, figured the people surrounding Lee were consoling her, and waited in line to tell Lee that opening night wasn't everything, that she was sure it could be fixed, that she didn't even see any critics around. Just before Diaz got to Lee, the thunder crashed. The rain started.
The storm hit.
Something like 150 people came to the gallery that night, which would have been a good crowd for a museum opening. (The show closes December 1.) Beyond the storm was a tank of water in a dark room giving off the moving glow of a video projected through it, a pillow made of what looked like ice or glass reflecting the shadows of hands trying to touch, an empty white room making startling back-and-forth noises.
Lawrimore Project is a storm unto itself, and when there's a new show, everyone goes. Lee's show attracted critics, naturally; docent groups traveling in caravans from the Seattle and Portland art museums; teachers boning up on local culture on behalf of their Lakeside School students; classes of artists-in-training from UW; architects-in-training from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (one of them accidentally broke a small piece); Lanny DeVuono, artist and writer, taking notes for a piece for Artweek; and curators, descended from their institutional heights at SAM, PAM, Tacoma Art Museum, Frye Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, the City of Seattle, Vulcan, Suyama Space, the Art Gym at Marylhurst University in Oregon, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, the Speed Art Museum in Kentucky, and the Luckman Gallery at California State University Los Angeles. One day, soft-spoken Australian artist Patricia Piccinini strolled in casually—with Washington, D.C., super-collector Anthony Podesta.
All those people—plus the ones at the LED parties, and at Hollywood Lighting, McCallum Inc., Force Electronics in Redmond, and In Display in South Seattle—have seen, considered, or contributed to the very first art show of a brand-new Seattle talent. They've all been drawn in, like Lee herself, to one spot: Lawrimore Project.
It would be insulting to other contemporary galleries to say that Lawrimore Project is the center around which the art world in Seattle orbits. But it's fair to say that Lawrimore Project is the closest thing contemporary art in Seattle has to a center, and the only place that feels like a center, like a place where, at one point or another, everybody—and everybody's energy—collects.
It pulls things toward it. Kids coming out of art school talk lustfully about Lawrimore Project. The most uniformly exciting bloc of young artists in the city is represented by Lawrimore Project: Anne Mathern, Tivon Rice, Isaac Layman, and Lee. Cris Bruch, the long-unsung local hero, is represented by Lawrimore Project. Four of the five visual artists who've won Stranger Genius Awards—Susan Robb, SuttonBeresCuller, Alex Schweder, and Lead Pencil Studio—are represented by Lawrimore Project, even though The Stranger has been through three visual art editors in that time. Lead Pencil Studio is the only one that was represented by Lawrimore Project at the time it won. In fact, Lead Pencil Studio (currently in Rome, living it up on the Rome Prize) designed Lawrimore Project and was the first on the roster.
On Tuesday mornings, Lawrimore Project moves, basically. It shifts from the International District, where the gallery is located, to Capitol Hill, where a mob of art people takes over the back room of Cafe Presse. Scott Lawrimore presides. He started Lawrimore Project in June 2006 and the coffee klatch 10 months later. He usually sits in the corner taking notes. He always buys.
The art world is disparate and factious, made up of people almost always kept apart by their jobs. It's a world characterized more by discretion than discussion. Who's buying what and why is private. Critics write reviews, but don't have to defend themselves. Artists don't argue with curators. Art historians stay in their offices writing papers. For artists, critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and art historians to be spreading butter on baguettes in each other's company while having it out is extraordinary.
The first klatch was on May 8, 2007, and it didn't take place at Cafe Presse, it took place at the IHOP on Madison Street. Lawrimore installed himself in a booth in the back. He summed up the conversation in notes he sent out to his e-mail list afterward: Legendary artist Bruce Nauman had talked about his early work while video artist Gary Hill, troubled by politics, "ate like a bird in a transmission tower." Jandek, the reclusive outsider folk singer, not seen in public since 2004, strode in, serenaded the waitress, and scored free coffee for everybody. Scottish artist Christine Borland brought preserves made from the apples of Isaac Newton's tree, which perfectly complemented the German pancakes ordered by Tobias Rehberger, who proceeded to describe how he'd just made a film in reverse, starting with the poster and ending with the script.
Okay, none of that happened. It was a sequence of events that Lawrimore scribbled in his notebook based on the reading he did for three straight hours while nobody showed up. The very next klatch, real people came. Lawrimore moved it to Cafe Presse and renamed it, confusingly, IHOP Art Klatch @ Cafe Presse. (Shortly after the name changed, artist Whiting Tennis sat at IHOP for hours waiting for this klatch he'd heard about to materialize.) According to the invitation Lawrimore e-mails every week, the klatch will happen "EVERY Tuesday morning until 10:00 a.m. for the rest of my life." The e-mail list started out with 40 addresses; now it's 180 strong and counting. More and more people ask to be put on it every week, mostly so they can read Lawrimore's descriptions of the week before.
Usually only 15 to 20 people show. Any obsession, complaint, or curiosity is welcome. If it weren't so early in the morning—it starts at 7:00 a.m.—who knows how many would come. (Seattle P-I art critic Regina Hackett and dealer Greg Kucera, for instance, have never been, much as they'd like to, because they can't get up that early.)
The weird, surprising moments keep people coming back. Once, when artist Brian Murphy sarcastically said, "I paint everything for JPEGs," at the suggestion by someone else that artists consider digital reproduction when they're making their art, another painter, Francisco Guerrero, quietly added that he had once changed the entire direction of his work so that it would reproduce better.
Tom Barwick, a heavyweight collector of early American artists such as Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt and Mary Cassatt once confessed to me that he didn't know what he was doing there. He doesn't like or understand contemporary art, but he keeps showing up.
On October 23, a week and a half after her show opened, Lee was the "featured speaker." That meant that she showed up around 8:00 a.m. and took the floor for three minutes or so until the group broke in with questions, opinions, comparisons, whatever. I'd arrived just before her, so I missed all the other stuff that was alluded to in the notes that got e-mailed out the following week. Apparently they'd talked about reverse influence, assimilation, and the artist who famously walked a cabbage across China.
Lee divulged an ongoing argument she has with Coupe, her fiancé. A recurring theme at the klatch is that the speakers question themselves or throw out half-formed ideas that, in a context like a lecture or gallery talk, would be flattened into conclusions or avoided altogether. She said, "I tell him, 'I don't think you need to be an expert in the physiology of the ear and the physics of sound to be a composer.' But I ask myself: 'What kind of competence do I actually have to have to feel like this is my work?'"
The conversation somersaulted from there. Somebody dissed DXArts as "high-tech craft." Somebody else declared a love for sensuality, romance, vulnerability, poetry.
Then an art historian sitting next to Lee turned to her.
He paused. He was clearly afraid of what he was about to say, or was afraid that she wouldn't like it, or something. But he went for it. "I might be totally dissing your work here," he ventured.
The place went quiet. Was an art historian actually going to give an artist sitting right next to him an opinion that might not be totally comfortable?
"Were you trying to make me nauseous?" he finally blurted.
She laughed. Only slightly uncomfortably. Many artists crave actual criticism. The art historian went on to explain that he was referring to one sculpture in particular. In this sculpture, a man whispering a sex poem is heard in headphones that you wear while watching an abstract projection on the wall.
"You're uncomfortable," Lee said. "I just wanted to go with that."
Cheerfully, he declared, "I hate it!"
It was not unlike a lightning strike. Something unprecedented had been achieved: actual dialogue.
Lawrimore, who makes a portion of his living selling Lee's work, didn't jump in defensively or change the subject. He sat there quietly. Taking notes.
Two years ago, Lawrimore Project didn't exist and Scott Lawrimore was just another assistant at somebody else's gallery. He has a nondescript background: grew up in a trailer park in northern California, once made a drawing of Scrooge that got him placed in art classes, ended up with a master's degree in art history, came to Seattle to work and moved up the gallery chain, ending at Greg Kucera Gallery.
Now, Lawrimore is historic.
Ken Allan, an art historian at Seattle University, compares Lawrimore to some-one like Walter Hopps, who schlepped slide projectors to collectors' L.A. homes in the 1950s to spread the gospel of abstract expressionism. Or to Richard Bellamy, the man who stood behind minimalism in its very early days, but quickly lost his Green Gallery in New York to bankruptcy.
"I think that, in the end, Scott will have developed one of only two art spaces here in Seattle that were distinct from what everybody else did," Kucera said of his former protégé the other day.
The other gallery Kucera was referring to was run by Donald Young, who put everyone else to shame by importing world-famous artists to Seattle. (He moved to Chicago.) That's different from Lawrimore's gig, which is aptly described as a "project" instead of a "gallery." Lawrimore Project is a commercial gallery, but there are times when it seems an awful lot like a nonprofit, a theater, a school, a bar, a party, a brunch place, a think tank, a salon, or a community center.
Lawrimore has a system for walking to work in the morning. He tries to get from his condo on First Hill to the gallery in the International District without stopping for a stoplight.
There are rules. He does not allow himself to go backward or in the wrong direction, or to slow down as he approaches a light until it changes in his favor. The point is to hope that moments of luck will coalesce into a perfect experience. He's been walking to work since he opened the gallery, and it hasn't happened yet.
On a gray October morning, it looked worse than usual.
"Goddamn you, Seventh and James!" he mock-yelled, shaking a fist. He started to mutter about why this is a particularly problematic corner. It only has crosswalks on two sides, so you can't just cross one way and hope for the light in the other direction—that'll just be a dead end. The whole area is to be avoided. It's always better to walk around downtown than through it. "You're so limited from here," he concluded mournfully.
But the sense you get is that the laws of chance are, for him, their own reward. It's not really winning he's after, just playing.
That's the sense you get at the gallery, too, and then you think, that can't really be true. An art dealer is an art dealer. Somebody who sells art. Who needs to make money to keep the doors open. Who needs to win, not just play.
Lawrimore may be the first dealer in Seattle for whom winning means playing. He's cashing in on the gamesmanship that's been a part of art since Marcel Duchamp (his hero) declared a urinal a work of art in 1917. And his gallery reflects and absorbs the open criticism of art and its institutions—also known as institutional critique—that artists have practiced for decades. A costume metal band that Anne Mathern invited to perform in the gallery in August implicitly accused art, as opposed to music, of being staid and disconnected. In June 2006, a giant plywood box with SuttonBeresCuller sealed inside it blocked the view of the new gallery, mocking a certain slavish devotion to architecture that the gallery at the same time epitomizes. In January, an entire show called LP *Hearts* Painting consisted of a single painting by Michael D. Linares emblazoned with the words "FUCK DUCHAMP." In 18 months, Lawrimore has shown fewer than 10 paintings.
None of these shenanigans is without precedent in the world of art. In fact, Lawrimore's artists often nod directly to forebears in their work. Lawrimore himself is in the mold of theatrical dealers like Jeffrey Deitch of New York—and he is always, fixedly, contemplating history. "I come with baggage," Lawrimore said. "My baggage is art historical, numerological, and archetypal. When Anne Mathern, for instance, comes to me, I have a gazillion associations in my mind. There are always precedents. Somebody's always gotten there first. It's my job to figure out, 'Is this artist going there? Or not? Why not?'" (Mathern, for her part, flatly says she doesn't make art about art, so the combination is interesting to watch, and probably good for both of them.)
What is unprecedented here is that Lawrimore has made unwieldy performance art, conceptual art, and technology-based art by untested artists the centerpiece of a profitable enterprise—a commercial venture—in Seattle.
It can't be easy. What's a collector to do with Lee's installation of an empty room with speakers completely hidden behind Sheetrocked-over walls? Or 5,000 square feet of foam core panels, LED lights, and miles and miles of wires hooked up to microcontrollers? This sort of thing used to be the province of nonprofit museums, galleries, and art centers. In Seattle, all the daring nonprofits—Consolidated Works, Center on Contemporary Art, 911 Media Arts Center—have either ceased to be, or ceased to be daring.
So how is Lawrimore keeping the doors open?
"I'd love to get him alone and get him drunk and just say, 'Really man, how do you keep this boat floating?'" says Kolya Rice, an art historian at UW.
Lawrimore says his parents, who run the same trailer park where he grew up (and where his brother and his brother's family also still live), helped him open the gallery, but since then, sales alone have paid the rent. The gallery's smaller rooms are more practical, perfect for showing photography, scaled-down sculpture, painting, and video—stuff that does sell.
As a salesman, Lawrimore is part wonk, part daredevil. Last December at Aqua Art Miami, a satellite to the jumbo art fair Art Basel Miami, he sold more than $100,000 of work in a matter of hours; over four days, he placed seven pieces in museum collections. Most dealers brought art to Miami, hung it, and tried to sell it. Lawrimore took a different approach. He played bartender behind a glass-topped bar that showed videos by his artists on demand. He strung an indecorous red-velvet rope outside the door. It was a riff on the decadent scene. "Like, yeah, it's a bar—you want to hang out and be part of the beautiful set?" says historian Allan. It worked.
This December in Miami, instead of serving drinks, Lawrimore will cater to the ubiquitous sense of the malnourishment of art fairs by cooking up omelets. A team of Seattle anti-fashion designers called Ruffeo Hearts Lil Snotty will outfit him and his artists. In a location visible from the street, Seattle artist Schweder will make a site-specific inflatable installation based on the sex act of snowballing (another metaphor for the fair?).
At home, Lawrimore emphasizes presales so that openings already sport red dots. All the leading names in contemporary collecting in Seattle—the Trues, the Behnkes, the Stewarts, the Monsens, the Krohns, the Casteels—have bought from the gallery, which represents in its roster of 16 a couple of higher-profile artists, too, notably Austrian conceptualist Erwin Wurm.
There is something unlikable about Scott Lawrimore. He calls this quality arrogance.
One thing that outperforms Lawrimore's arrogance is his sense of humor. Once, when I asked him to stop using the art-jargon word "discourse" on me, he refused, but kindly substituted "Darjeeling." Over time, the range of experiences Lawrimore Project presents has broadened, and his choices of artists have not all been fashionable. I've come to believe it's as possible to have a "loud" experience at Lawrimore Project (as I described its first opening in this newspaper) as a quiet one. And Lawrimore is the most tentacular of all Seattle dealers: He invites strangers for breakfast, he introduces people, he recommends books. (His favorite book to recommend is Applied Grammatology.) Maybe this is the adult, sophisticated version of his goody-two-shoes days in high school when he organized don't-drink parties.
By Northwest standards, Lawrimore is flashy. He's an impresario. He's youthful at 37. He's unflappable and often slightly joking. When he's really joking, he raises his eyebrows three times fast, like Groucho Marx. He's freckled, sandy-haired, and slim—he used to be chubby but will tell you that he lost weight when he got seriously into the art business—and he dresses cleverly. He wears his high-school varsity jacket around; he lettered in basketball and golf.
But this Lawrimore is relatively new. This urbanite didn't even live in the city until a few years ago, commuting in for years from Southworth or Bremerton.
"A million years ago, I remember him as the guy who sat at the desk at Davidson [Gallery] and he was always pleasant, but I never knew quite who he was," said Beth Sellars, the independent curator behind Suyama Space and a keen observer of art in the Northwest for more than 30 years. "Then, when he went over to Greg's [Greg Kucera Gallery], he just became this hysterically funny guy, with this dry, quirky sense of humor, and I was like, 'Is this the same guy?' And then he started this!"
"He always had his fingers on the pulse of things that were more experiential, more inclined to be nonrectangular," Kucera said. "What he's got going for him is his high sense of theatricality and his ability to engage the public on a number of different levels: the coffee klatch, the exhibitions, the artist talks, the distinctive level of installation."
Lawrimore's favorite living artist is Tino Sehgal. He's based in Berlin and is about as nonrectangular as they come. He invents rules for gestures to be acted out by other people, and they are never photographed or documented.
In one piece, two dealers representing Sehgal were set up next to each other at an art fair. They were only allowed to talk about his work—to sell it—one word at a time, alternating. In another piece at an art fair, two children stood around interpreting and promoting his past pieces using art jargon they'd been fed beforehand.
Lawrimore likes it when the joke is on the dealer. When he was working for Seattle galleries, he instituted a program: the $150 studio visit. He'd go to artists' studios but often would be unable to show their work for one reason or another, so he'd give them $150 in exchange for whatever they thought that was worth. "I always wanted them to, like, spit in a napkin and give it to me," he said wistfully. "But they never did."