Now Reverberating at the Frye
From Betty Boop to Shabazz Palaces and Beyond
Fifty-year-old baby Pebbles Flintstone is crying. "I'm rotting," she says. She looks fine, but upset. She's projected on the wall, larger than a cave baby should be, next to a live woman sitting on the floor, who says, "But remember when you used to talk like this? Bah, bah, bah, ga-ga..." Pebbles interrupts: "I hate you."
Pebbles and her hatred are part of a new music video by Wynne Greenwood. She was shooting it at the Frye Art Museum last week—gallery as studio as performance. Anyone could watch. The set Greenwood built evoked the women's Olympus Spa in Tacoma, which has tiled floors and walls and soaking tubs. Pools of light in the gallery suggested pools of water. Greenwood, wearing sweatpants and slippers, shuffled within the roped-off area, acting as director, actor, costumer, cinematographer. Loops of music or projections—like Pebbles, or a segment of Betty Boop praying—played on repeat. Greenwood would train the camera, enter the scene, play the role she'd written, and then change it up in different takes. She'd return to behind the camera and, disappearing into a pair of big headphones, watch what she'd done on the playback screen. All her tools were there—speakers, microphones, mixing board, ironing board.
Museums are no longer satisfied to be resting places for polished objects: Who wants to be a tomb? Artists are happy to oblige. There's pleasure in hoping your work will someday land in a museum—maybe after you're dead—but there's clearly also pleasure in being inside that museum talking to Pebbles right now.
Greenwood's act of escorting Pebbles and Betty to the spa is her way of reconsidering female characters that many other feminists and queer thinkers abandoned long ago. Watching her repeated takes is interesting, even not knowing which she'll choose for the final piece, which will play in this gallery soon. Greenwood stretches her arms like a yogi showing off, like somebody trying to do relaxation right, while the cartoons cry. How do we really heal (from history)? Relax (after the exhaustion of being a sexist stereotype)?
Greenwood's video is part of the Frye's big autumn exhibition, called Mw [Moment Magnitude]. It's a title that you have to explain, involving an actual earthquake scale, alternative to the Richter, that doesn't have an upper limit; the quake might be bigger than ever imagined. That's the metaphor for the 23 selected artists/artist teams in the exhibition—all from Seattle, all living, not only visual artists but dancers, musicians, writers, theatermakers. Though its organizers would cringe at the "b" word, Mw is not unlike a biennial. It puts forward a case about Seattle—that its current aesthetic is fundamentally hybrid. It wants to consider what's great here and now, whether or not it fits the museum mold—huzzah—even if the wall labels are woolly. ("A community realized it needed to create a new way that took into account the unknown." Plural authoritative poetic voice?) Usually, when museums do local, general contemporary exhibitions, artists have to apply and pay a fee to be considered, and a "juror" is enlisted from some far-off museum to make (and legitimize) the final selections.
But this crew of five curators is local: the Frye's director, two directors of experimental performance companies, an art educator/curator, a writer. Given this machinery, what sits in the galleries is minimal. Each artwork has breathing room, not for modernist/ worship-the-genius reasons but rather to avoid the impression that everything is already here—the performances at Mw are not at all secondary. Curators say they wanted "uncertain outcomes," hoping Mw will test what a museum is meant to be. The Frye has specialized in uncertain outcomes for several years, especially in presenting performance, and Mw doesn't necessarily feel any more into-the- unknown than its predecessors. But it's unusual in that it's a truly connective group show without a topical theme. You have to spend a little time, but the connections are worth it.
The more fixed art—what's in the galleries—is an unprecedented mix of new, new-classic (pieces seen recently and loved), and true classic Seattle.
True classic: dirty-looking ceramic plates shaped like TV-dinner trays made by Buster Simpson in the late 1970s, which were low-fired, submerged in the polluted waters of Elliott Bay for more than a year, and then the muck they collected was fired to their surfaces. Simpson's early work is foundational in ongoing threads of performance, earth, and eco art; these plates prefigured work by the celebrated British artist Simon Starling in 2006, for instance. Another two pieces by Simpson are photographs of past performances—in one, he's naked on a dirt hillside in lower Manhattan, appearing to hurl something up and over the top. Peeking over that hilltop are the unmistakable tips of the Twin Towers.
Another performance vet with a conscience: Cris Bruch. His 1980s Pioneer Square homelessness studies are here, including "Home a la Carte." In a written pamphlet, he uses dripping sarcasm to describe the convenience and dignity of a DIY home made of tarps, bicycle wheels, and a shopping cart. Photographs show the "Home," when folded up for carrying, absurdly resembles a tiny pioneer wagon. But there's an undertone of real longing, too, for leaving the grid that spawned such poverty in the first place.
Seattle's veteran of the antiheroic gesture is Jeffry Mitchell. His most striking piece here is a huge tapestry of layered latex, sagging, skinlike.
New: Projected at movie size is a gorgeous, bucolic-mystical music video by Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction, and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. It features mysterious characters floating through a woodsy cabin at night, each dressed in fashions combining saturated- color '60s-chic, African masks, and factory uniforms.
Also new: Anne Fenton's video version of the Iggy Pop song "Success." She's sitting still on a red couch, legs crossed, and wearing black fuzzy slippers (there's something about slippers in Mw), vacantly singing the lead (she's the prerecorded backup singers, too). The couch is part of her re-creation of the Canadian artist Rodney Graham's basement, which she's assembling from hearsay in her Seattle apartment.
New-classic: Matt Browning's 2010 wood funnels slathered in wood sap and wood panels covered in monochrome paintings of wood sap. Leo Berk's 2009 sculpture of Saddam Hussein's spider hole, suspended from the ceiling (as if to say we are in the dirt), smoothly curvy and bright yellow, like a dildo the length of a bicycle and the color of manic caution.
But Mw also includes pop and jazz concerts, sound recordings taken by 10 teenagers from the demolition-ready housing project Yesler Terrace, literary readings, three days of a 35-piece orchestra rehearsing, a sold-out concert by Perfume Genius (and ongoing display of the Perfume Genius music video deemed not family-friendly by YouTube for its two naked embracing men), the creation of a new dance. Schedules are on the walls like large-scale drawings, studies for what's to come.