Love and Hoarding
Is That Skunk with a Hitler Face Art?
Growing up as the daughter of Seattle's leading collectors of modern art, Merrill Wright got used to hearing, "You call that art?" She came to love the question. "First of all, it is rude, and rudeness is fascinating," she writes in her introduction to the spectacularly bric-a-bracky exhibition she organized at the Wright Exhibition Space this spring, Collecting: Art Is a Slippery Slope. "Most of my art can slide both ways—as art or thing. And sometimes my things can become art."
Mostly, it really doesn't matter whether you are looking at art or thing in Art Is a Slippery Slope. A tiny carved wooden skunk wearing the face of Hitler is a work of art even if it isn't. A sparkling corner of mercury glass and a light-speckled wall of ceramic animal TV lamps surely rise to the level of art installations. On the flip side, a segment of Robert Gober's wallpaper decorated with a pattern of alternating drawings—of a sleeping white man and a hanging black man—has an entirely different meaning if you don't know it was made by an artist rather than some blithely hateful manufacturer.
Wright organized the show by inviting 24 of her friends to share what they collect. But she may be the most fascinating collector of all. Her own stuff forms the spine of the exhibition, from her Space Needle tchotchkes to a large celadon painting covered in faint pencil drawings of baby faces by Jesse Paul Miller. She gamely pairs the Staffordshire figurines she inherited from her grandmother (no one else in the family wanted them) with a valuable piece of postmodern silver Jeff Koons sculpture owned by her mother, French Coach Couple—which is little more than an enlarged bit of Staffordshire kitsch. Allan McCollum's Plaster Surrogates, a series of painted plaster pieces made to look like black monochrome paintings, are "emblem[s] for what the artist does," McCollum says, like a tooth sign hanging outside a dentist's office.
Each collector was given an eight-foot-long shelf in the airy galleries. The range of objects is mind-blowing, from hair wreaths to folding chairs to chain-saw carvings to magician's stands to NASCAR memorabilia. Art dealer James Harris and partner Carlos Garcia re-created the intimate installation of small artworks that hangs above their bed.
But all is not order and tidiness. Grady West, aka Dina Martina, exposed the underbelly of need, lust, and excess in collecting. He neatly hung several of the finely made, disgusting, bodies-inside-out paintings of Gregory Jacobsen—"like a turd on a doily," he wrote.