Though they have a shared origin on the same long-lost cave wall, pictures and words have always had a combative relationship. For the most part when you combine them, you've created something tawdry and disposable, like a children's entertainment (something to grow out of) or an advertisement. Comics are a collaboration between the two, but even then the words have to be safely tucked away from the illustrations in a bubble of rounded lines; the delineation between the two is clear and inviolable. In a museum, words are servile, trapped on tiny, high-quality index cards and usually displayed just below and to the right of the image like a loyal dog; people stare at the painting or photograph and then glance down at the words to gain a little context. And, obviously, there's a tension—the basic frustration that comes with any translation—to all visual-arts criticism.
Looking Together, a new book from the Frye Art Museum, plays with that essential conflict in interesting ways. In 2005, the Frye decided to unleash the museum's founding collection and allow it to collude and commingle with new artists' works.
The most visible product of that decision was the 2007 exhibition in which Victoria Haven created an altar for Franz von Stuck's 1908 painting Sin. The giant golden construction is gaudy and marvelous, at once canonizing the art and humbling it from its Wagnerian scope. But less obviously, for the last three years, Rebecca Brown has been curating a reading series of pieces that respond to art that belongs to or has visited the Frye. Collected together in Looking, the book becomes something similar to Haven's altar: It's a true collaboration between writer and artist.
You'd also be hard-pressed to find a better survey of the array of literary talent available in Seattle, and for the most part the writers are up to the task. Like Haven's altar, Frances McCue deepens Von Stuck's Sin with a five-part poem that could have been written in the same nauseous-green color as the painting itself: "Sin, we learned from M_____/congeals in craft and ornament:/lamp shades of human skin, pricked/with lanyard strings along the seams; or/sketches of those girls, lippy/in the killer's journal. Residue." It's an altar unto itself, glimmering around the work, simultaneously poking at it and petting it.
A few of the text pieces are superfluous. Lesley Hazleton's story from the point of view of the crucified woman in Gabriel von Max's 1867 painting The Christian Martyr thuds along like a bad museum brochure that lamely tries to make the facts entertaining ("But then I was no lady. Just a mere slave girl from Carthage, on the northern tip of Africa..."). And Adrianne Harun's "The Darger Episodes," a collection of short bursts of action inspired by Henry Darger's murals, don't add anything to the art that Darger didn't already write himself.
The book begins and ends with its best pieces from its best-known contributors. Jonathan Raban opens with a treatise from the point of view of Albert Bierstadt (giddily, it begins, "Critics? Don't talk to me of critics!"). Titled "Mr. Bierstadt Speaks His Mind," it's a sly and sarcastic work that deconstructs Bierstadt's tacky landscape. Of the rainbow that sits, brain-dead and drooling for attention, in the center of the painting, Raban/Bierstadt writes: "That was the finishing touch, done in a few seconds in the studio, and it makes the picture—God smiles on California!"
And Ryan Boudinot closes the book with a short story inspired by Tim Eitel's 2004 painting Leerer Raum (Empty Room), a dispassionate look at a young couple with a stroller standing in a room with nothing on its walls. The story offers no additional commentary on the painting, choosing instead to work with Eitel, to accentuate his point. Stacey Levine's story "The Cats" bears a similar relationship to Patricia Piccinini's 2005 sculpture The Embrace, in which a hairless alien creature attacks a woman's face. "The Cats" is about a woman who loves her cat and fears the possibility of its death so much that she wants a clone of it immediately. Of course things go very wrong. Levine and Piccinini are coy about genre—the story and the sculpture are science fiction—but they both know how to toy with our well-worn expectations, which have been prescribed by surface-level examinations of their works. It's hard to imagine a more profitable truce between words and pictures.