POSSESSED: Zoe Leonard’s army of dolls. Alice Wheeler
Possessed Western Bridge
3412 Fourth Ave S, 838-7444
Through Oct 9.
Opening reception Thurs May 27, 6-8 pm.


Possessed refers both to the idea of possession--of being controlled by some kind of external force or spirit--and to possessions. The relationship between the idea that's spiritual and ethereal and the other that's concrete and object-based is a neat, rather obvious duality, but this exhibition, the first at Bill and Ruth True's Western Bridge, is agreeably layered and complex. It's a set of intertwined ideas that gives the art a gentle and persuasive frame, without forcing it into interpretive contortions.

The possessions specifically referred to are the works in the Trues' collection, which has culminated in this airy exhibition space designed, with signature surreal touches, by Roy McMakin. Certainly, art collecting tilts certain people toward a kind of possessed frenzy, and although I wouldn't use the word "frenzy" to describe the Trues, having them as guides to this exhibition is a rare treat. Their enjoyment of art, and their changing relationship to the works they own, is something I never tire of. I met the Trues four years ago, when I was writing an article about the idea of art collecting--what drives it, what sustains it--and Bill True was nice enough to give me a tour of the works displayed, in those days, in their house. I was impressed not only by the level of difficulty, in both concept and installation, of the works they were willing to live with, but also by Bill's evident delight at it all: a two-monitor Gary Hill installation in the living room, a full-screen Sam Taylor-Wood video showing in the kitchen, a Dan Flavin sculpture tucked into the turn of a staircase. At a dinner party at the Trues' more recently, a Candace Breitz installation--called Dallas, which featured the '80s soap opera playing on multiple '80s-era televisions, mounted on '80s-era furniture, and which had recently been the hit of the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair--had been given an entire room. None of these works are particularly cheerful, but the Trues' engagement with them is both philosophical and pleased.

Western Bridge has allowed the Trues to broaden the scope of their collection, in terms of both the size of the work (they can now acquire art that even their generous ethic of home installation can't accommodate) and theme (they used to concentrate on works that investigated, no matter how obliquely, the idea of portraiture). Still, the Trues are anything but institutional. At Western Bridge last week, Ruth True demonstrated for me the best vantage point, according to her 6-year-old daughter, to look at a Zoe Leonard installation (it's from about three feet off the ground); after watching a Shirin Neshat film, we talked about how the meaning of the work has changed for her, from seeming like a film about artistic inspiration to a more disturbing allegory of rebellion and conformity.

Neshat's piece, also called Possessed, is one example of why Western Bridge is such an important new space for this city--a real gift, in fact. I've seen plenty of the artist's still photographs, both in person and in reproduction, but I've never managed to coincide with a live, full-sized showing of one of her films. Now I've seen one, and it is stunning: A lovely, wild-eyed woman mutters to herself, whispers into the cracks of walls, stirs up a crowd in a Moroccan square, and then wanders away. (I didn't notice until my second viewing that she literally floats away from the crowd, plucked from the chaos by some unseen hand.) The large, luminous black-and-white projection, the hypnotic, sorrowful soundtrack by Sussan Deyhim (Neshat's constant collaborator), the still, black room in which you find yourself watching it, all deliver a potent gulp of emotion that you have to experience to fully appreciate, nothing I could have expected from what I've heard and read. From an intellectual distance, Neshat's work can seem like an exercise in style; live and up close, it's entirely different. (And it seems to me that one of the reasons Seattle is not as sophisticated an art city as it could be is that unless we travel constantly--to New York, to L.A., to Berlin--we don't have much face-to-face knowledge of important contemporary works.)

The literal and demonic form of possession suggested by Neshat creates a context for the whole exhibition (assembled by the Trues and Eric Frederickson, former Stranger writer and now Western Bridge's director), an aura that is as inspired as it is sinister, a kind of encouragement to let yourself be taken over by what you're seeing. Zoe Leonard's installation, a large array of dolls facing front and standing evenly spaced in a large room, comes to seem like a not necessarily benevolent army, and one that has suffered the abuses of possession, of being loved to death, of having clothes stripped away, hair arbitrarily cut. You find it's hard to look the dolls in the eye. Nicola Vruwink's Living, created for the 2002 Bumbershoot, is a document of the artist undertaking every project made by Martha Stewart over the course of weeks and weeks' worth of Stewart's television show. (The idea of Stewart as an external controlling force is a particularly inspired and nasty one.) The Taylor-Wood video, Hysteria, of a woman silently laughing and then crying, until you're not sure which is which, has a less intellectual effect than it did at the Henry a few years ago, or in the Trues' kitchen, for that matter--it is much more startling. Paul Pfeiffer's The Pure Products Go Crazy, a two-second loop of Tom Cruise humping the sofa in Risky Business (and shown in a tiny, tiny projection) looks less like glee than it has in the past, now taking on the look of someone having a seizure.

The pleasures of this exhibition and this space are too numerous to mention, but in all the show has the urgency of someone pressing on you a thing particularly loved, of wanting you to be similarly possessed. Possessed holds together beautifully, so much so that with each idea revealed by a new work, you want to go back and look at all the others again, to see what this new lens reveals. Significant engagement with art: I can't think of anything Seattle needs more.