Everything about Avantika Bawa's new installation AT OWNERS RISK at Suyama Space sounds right when you hear her talk about it. AT OWNERS RISK is minimalistic, just a few sculptural elements erected in the gallery to pick up elements of what's already there. "I didn't want to do too much," the Portland artist says. "Just hint at the then and now."
The 1880s building on Second Avenue that now houses Suyama Peterson Deguchi Architects is a great physicalization of stories. Where the gallery is—the central bay of the building—was once a hayloft, with a livery stable beneath it. At some point after hills were sliced off and earth was piled up in order to resculpt downtown Seattle into a level business district, this became an auto-body shop. The place still has all manner of janky details: differences in grade connected by ramps, doors that don't quite meet the ground, unusually high windows. It is an epic palimpsest, and many artists at Suyama Space focus on its striking formal elements, eschewing explicit references to social and environmental history. Bawa meant her installation to redress some of these silences.
During construction, she brought in gallons of used motor oil to pour into giant pans that would double as minimalist sculptural elements. But the fumes nearly made everyone insane, so she had to come up with a costume oil material instead. When I visited the day before the opening, the scent of oil lingered. Bawa saw its slow dissipation as a poetic reenactment of the building's history—the gallery floor (the only part of the original flooring left in the building) was once soaked in oil, and some say you can still catch stray whiffs. "I'm glad I at least brought the oil in and took the oil out," she says. "Oil doesn't go away. This is what is happening [in the world] on a smaller scale."
But during a visit a few days later, Bawa's intentions were not effectively apparent. The largest gesture in AT OWNERS RISK (the title taken from printed text left over on an old wooden beam) is a long, thin silver ramp on the floor, off-center beneath a series of industrial-scale posts painted bright blue and meant to mimic the hydraulic posts you see in mechanic shops. But the blue is slightly more painterly and cheerful than standardized and flat. Beneath the posts, the ramp exposes its flimsiness with seams it looks like the artist tried, but failed, to entirely camouflage. It might have been interesting, as a reference to the seamed ramp near the door, to emphasize seams. The imprecisions are distracting.
Overall, the elements do not coalesce. A graphite line drawing on the wall is exquisite, but you will probably miss it entirely. The same goes for yellow cuffs around the wooden beams in the ceiling. A suite of drawings in the adjacent room is most successful in summoning forth a sense of messy, even dread-filled history: The drawings are precisely rendered, using rulers, but picture tombs, out-of-joint joints, and skewed perspectives. Otherwise, it is not just the style of AT OWNERS RISK that is minimal but the impact. Which is a shame, given the good, sleuthy intentions.