The first thing I did in Pae White's installation Command-Shift-4 was to thank the woman in front of me for knocking into the art before I did. She'd bumped her forehead into one of the many skeins of yarn stretched across the gallery. It had only been a matter of time, we joked tensely, keeping our eyes on the vague menace of the brightly colored skeins.
In Command-Shift-4, what you see shifts with every step you take, and that's the way it's supposed to be. The California artist created the installation in tribute to old memories of the California coast, and like the memories, the art's shape shifts in and out of focus. At times, the fields of stretched yarn crisscrossing the Henry Art Gallery's 5,300-square-foot space look like a huge, random, multicolored network. A sea of pretty visual static. Noise, not signal.
But the signal is there. You just have to find it. It appears in the form of shapes that the webs of stretched yarn project onto the walls and floor. The shapes resolve in and out of focus depending on where you are, so they sharpen and then dissolve as you walk through the room. The way Command-Shift-4 works is like an anamorphic projection, an image that's visible only from a certain angle.
At their most intriguing, anamorphic projections are secrets in plain sight, and seeing them complicates what you thought you were looking at. The most famous case in art is Hans Holbein the Younger's 1533 painting The Ambassadors, where a perplexing area in the foreground resolves into a human skull if you stand to the right of the painting at a certain distance. The skull may as well be lifted from another painting entirely, just sitting there, symbolizing, while the rest of the picture is as faithful to straight-on appearance as possible. It's an interruption, an eruption, a joke—everything that remains uncontrolled just when you think you've got things under control.
As the shapes shift and reveal themselves in Command-Shift-4—the huge black arrows, the word "EXIT," a two-story red heart, the numbers of a zip code—they pull out an archive of a distant place and plant it within the museum's own architecture, using not just yarn but also paint and lights. Imagine the letters on a street sign were made of taffy and you were pulling them out toward you; that's what's happening to the solid material of this past distant place as it's distorted and stretched into this new time and place.
The shapes come from Sea Ranch, an unusual coastal community in Northern California that White visited as a child. Begun in the spirited 1960s, Sea Ranch was supposed to be an architectural idyll on a stretch of rugged land overlooking a fearsome ocean. It was magical. White remembers, as if it had been a dream, walking up one flight of stairs through a door into a hot sauna, coming out the door on the other side to a slide, and gliding down it into a diamond-shaped pool of icy cold water. (Amazingly, White said she wanted to put an actual sauna for visitors in the Henry but the budget didn't allow it.)
The diamond pool at Sea Ranch is gone today, White told me by phone. Liability worries have changed the place. People are as concerned about hurting themselves or the environment as we are when we go into White's installation at the Henry. The body has to stay vigilant.
Another famed feature at Sea Ranch were the "Supergraphics" painted by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. After the builders ran out of money, they hired her to create the illusion of larger spaces. "The whole point is to knock down walls with paint," read a caption in the 1968 Life magazine spread on Supergraphics. "Giant designs stretch walls and heighten ceilings..." This work has informed Command-Shift-4 both physically and conceptually. Many of the specific shapes in the installation are clearly recognizable from the Supergraphics, but so is White's idea that delicate forces can transform hard architectures.
Today, many of Stauffacher Solomon's Supergraphics have been painted over, but White says you can barely make out the ghosts of their once-bold shapes on the white walls. Maybe in a similar way, White's field of yarns dominates and transforms the space of the Henry, but could be ravaged by a single pair of scissors—and will be when the exhibition comes down.
But where Stauffacher Solomon knocked down walls with paint, White has built walls with yarn. For me, Command-Shift-4 brought frustrated magic. It was awkward to move around in the crowded space. Each graphic—the heart and semicircle, the window treatment, the zip code—felt like its own separate display. There was no unity and no flow. I'd try to look while walking but be distracted for fear I'd bump the art. I'd stand still while looking, and feel like I was contemplating a single frame of a film.
Command-Shift-4 has been up for a few weeks, and White still hasn't seen it herself. This may partially account for my experience of the installation as cool but a bit of a mess. White digitally mapped the piece in her studio and then sent her assistant to execute the design, which she said is unprecedented for her. Museum spokeswoman Dana Van Nest said the budgeted contract never called for White to be present for the entire three-week installation, and added, "We amended our budget to bring Pae [White] to Seattle [on October 29, for the open house], but she was unable to join us on that day." (White said she'd pore over future contracts more carefully.)
Even when I was right in the middle of Command-Shift-4, I never felt I'd entered it. I was pushed back out continually by those closed-off tunnels of yarn that took up the space I was trying to move through. Given that the title Command-Shift-4 refers to the keyboard shortcut for a screen shot on the Mac, maybe the artist's starting point was exactly that lack of direct connection with something, that life of mediation through unstable images and lost histories. Like most people to visit Sea Ranch, White never saw the Supergraphics in their original state, because some were whited-out very early on. White had to cull images from the web to create this flickering archive of fragments.
I suppose it's possible to think of Command-Shift-4 as a refusal of any single, clear, authoritative image. It's an old idea awkwardly rendered here. But inside the Henry, you can feel stirrings of a battle between what you see from the outside and what you feel on the inside, between looking and being.