The night before she left Seattle to move to London for two years, Victoria Haven's friends gave her a mixtape. It was 1986. They filled in the J-card in shaky, charismatic handwriting, band names in bold black ink—Sonics, U-Men, Beat Happening—and song titles in pale scrawl. They called the mix "THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME THAT'S WHY I LEFT."
Haven lost the tape that summer but kept the paper J-card for 25 years. It became her Rosebud, a talisman containing everything. Those Seattle bands, which her friends were members of, gave way to grunge bands, which some of those same friends formed; one friend became her husband; she moved back to Seattle, back to London for grad school at Goldsmiths, then back to Seattle again, and became a successful artist. She made beautiful, strange abstractions: floating, three-dimensional shapes defined by lines that intersected in spatially impossible ways. And then, in 2007, she made an unexpected announcement, in a sculpture made of cold-rolled steel dipped in white plastic. "I am paying attention," it said. It was a response to Bruce Nauman's 1970s exhortation to Pay Attention Motherfuckers, and it was the first time words appeared in her art—but the surprise was the word "I." There had been an "I" behind those abstractions all along, a personal person now outing herself, in soft cursive letters, as a frustrated force for vigilance. Who was she?
It finally felt okay to ask her after seeing her new show Hit the North, which is split this month between Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle and PDX Contemporary in Portland. The drawings, paintings, and sculptures include a tree stump chainsaw-carved with the words of her husband's homemade tattoo. It says "NO FUN," from the 1969 Stooges song about loneliness, and it was executed with a carver in Allen, Washington, who goes by the name of Bear in a Box. Also in the gallery: text mandalas with diameters the size of LPs and 45s, listing local landscapes (Desolation Peak, Cutthroat Pass, Diablo Dam, Obstruction Point, Deception Creek); pyramids made of laser-cut pieces of reflective fabric in the shape of the corporate TDK symbol (taken from the mixtape card) mounted on Gore-Tex (titled North X Northwest Mystic); and, in the middle of it all, a five-by-six-foot hand-drawn facsimile of the mixtape card from 1986.
"I thought this next body of work would be this manifesto of abstraction—I'd shove it in their faces," says Haven, who won the Stranger Genius Award in Visual Art in 2004. "Instead, I went all the way back to the personal and the specific. I realized that when it comes down to it, abstraction is anything but abstract. I mean, I just revealed all my source material."
She also threw her arms around Seattle and the whole Northwest. "That was a statement I needed to make—why not be honest about my connection here rather than embarrassed by it?"
Haven was born at Virginia Mason Hospital, less than a mile from Greg Kucera Gallery. She works in South Lake Union, two blocks from where she lived in 1986. She and her family and friends spend time in those landscapes whose names run rings around the album mandalas, which she calls Northwest Field Recordings. Back in the city, she's DJing the land, cuing it up in the most delicate, ethereal silver sumi ink.
"Things that have transformative power over me—music has done it, being in the landscape, especially in Washington, has done it, and how do you capture that energy in your work?" Haven says. She has no desire for her work to be isolated and lonely (no fun). Each place name is a mini-melodrama about discovery—Desolation Peak! Obstruction Point!—driven by the same silly, majestic obsession with pioneering that defines art, too.
Hit the North is funny and severe, goofy and great, the product of a punk/nerd, as catalog publisher Matthew Stadler describes her, crossed with hiker/formalist. It's a breakthrough show, the anarchic Iggy Pop energy and the tight sparkle of the Japanese TDK symbol in perfect balance. Included is the first painting Haven's made in decades, an all-black 18-by-18-inch panel ("It's a square! I never work in a perfect square! Gross!") covered evenly and brushlessly, as if it were made by machine. The surface is matte black acrylic, and two glossy black diamonds sit on top. She used a knife and had to do it over and over to get it flawless. Yet the image is simple, childishly so. Experts Only, it's called—a piece of dumb abstraction that's also an exquisite accomplishment, like having muscled down a double-diamond and being left breathless.
"I always think that abstraction is slipping away, that people just aren't looking," Haven says. She begins to sound almost political. Almost. "Abstraction, to me, is that fuzzy place, that place between things, where a lot of conflict happens, where a lot of connection happens. Just looking at that building over there and going, okay, this line is in front of that one, but what if it weren't? Those are really basic observations, but I would like to believe that they could help you open yourself up to ways of thinking that are not so black and white."
Which also sounds very Seattle. Which, finally, is right.