Pivot Art + Culture has some of the greatest art in Seattle today. It also has some of the worst. The boondoggliest. I don't know how else to put this. Pivot's dramatic exhibition of 22 works, The Figure in Process: de Kooning to Kapoor, 1955–2015, is weird.
This is the point in the review when I'm supposed to use an adjective that imparts a value judgment indicating whether I'm telling you to go to the show. Let's do this. The Figure in Process is very good and very bad. Two thumbs up and two thumbs down. Myself, I wouldn't miss that.
You'll notice immediately. The largest of several supersize works is the painting that eats up most of the longest wall in the simple rectangular room of the gallery. It's 26 feet long and 11 feet high. The German artist who made it in 2014–2015, Jonas Burgert, intended it as a cautionary panorama of postapocalypse, a wasted world with echoes of German death camps.
But he created a sea of schlock instead, bursting with inadvertent hilarity. My favorite part is a diabolical dalmatian sitting right at the painting's midline. The dog is looking straight at you, raising one eyebrow.
Mere feet away, there's a great work (I'll try to focus on those from here on in): David Hockney's double portrait of art curator Henry Geldzahler and his lover Christopher Scott, a psychological and aesthetic thriller from 1968–69. This alone is worth the entire trip. I won't say much. Just notice the table surface, the naked little patch of crossed leg, the glare on the spectacles, the silliness of the trench coat, the inside joke between the lamp and the lover.
Hockney's painting is at the center of a group of three united by vivid color; curator David Anfam tried to break the noisy crowd into smaller conversations. (Why not fewer pieces? A mystery.) To the left of Hockney is one of Kehinde Wiley's postcolonial hero paintings, where a young Black man wearing a Chicago Bulls uniform against a flowery ground is the subversive new subject of elevation, though elevation itself—power—remains the super-subject. To the right is Wayne Thiebaud's stark vision of a sporty, serious-looking woman standing alone in 1960s rainbow stripes and an angled band of California sun. Handsome.
A theme has been overlaid on all these works: The Figure in Process, "in process" referring to the way that artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have not settled upon any dominant way of depicting the human body but rather filter their visions through individual and collective history, technology, and canons of art, culture, and mythology. Several of the works have the neat-o factor: a hyperrealistic sculpture of a boy squatting in front of a mirror by Ron Mueck, Mark Tansey's goofy tumbling-heads mountain, the typical brainless spectacle of a John Currin nude.
In a small accompanying catalog, Anfam writes about connections among works and themes-within-the-theme, but that's not the reason to enter this fray.
Go for Francis Bacon. Each of Bacon's trio of self-portrait studies from 1979 measures only 14 by 12 inches but represents a continent of complex emotion. His face is a series of fractured planes of flesh the colors of a bruise.
Go for Lucian Freud's six-foot-square painting Large Interior W11 (after Watteau) (1981–83), a set piece in a decrepit room where the pipes are exposed and the walls are stained. Without explanation or attention, a faucet is running, in a hostile gesture to the potted tree across the room that's brown-dead under a surface layer of previously hopeful green leaves.
Four people sit on a couch in front of the tree, and a fifth, a young girl with a comatose look, is lying on her back on the floor. A complex family psychology is suggested in the facial expressions, the environment, the poses, the clothes.
But the poses and clothes are borrowed from an 18th-century painting of stock commedia dell'arte characters by Antoine Watteau, another artist who wanted to bring across as much specific humanity as possible within the allure of theater, of art. Even Freud's brushstrokes are theatrical, each one jostling for attention. They're guilty pleasures.
The same goes for British artist Cecily Brown's grand, carnal 1999 painting Tender Is the Night, a swirling field of sublime painterly abstraction that camouflages a woman on all fours. Brown! Yes. Tender Is the Night hangs next to, and overshadows, one of Willem de Kooning's famous 1950s brutally abstracted women with teeth (Woman as Landscape, 1955). Her entire lower half is angry red. Those two paintings and a sculpture by Barry X Ball form a little section about cruelty, art, and female bodies. I enthusiastically hate the Ball sculpture.
Ball makes what he calls perfected versions of old sculptures using 3-D scanning and a CNC machine. His update on a white marble bust of Medusa by a 17th-century Italian artist is in Mexican onyx. If you look closely, it's lined like a 3-D-printed object. The 17th-century Medusa—based on the mythological woman raped then punished with an ugliness that turns people to stone—is grotesque, with wasting skin, sagging breasts, and a gaping mouth. Now, a more perfect, state-of-the-art stone misogyny!
Plenty of this art is theatrical, bold, and bordering on gimmickry. A person painted to resemble a Hubble nebula image. A colossal new portrait with faux-antique cracks in the surface. A hideous whopper by Julian Schnabel—on velvet.
But even art this splashy can be interrupted by the weird stuff hanging over it. The venue is a potential distraction. Pivot was the brainchild of Paul Allen and advertised for months as an innovative new contemporary art and culture center with multiple exhibitions per year and dedicated full-time curators. Less than a month before it opened, sources said it would close after Figure, to be used only occasionally. Allen and Vulcan haven't explained. Pivot is a big question mark.
Many people assumed Pivot would be a showcase for Allen's large collection, but Allen owns only four of the 22 works in Figure and the rest are borrowed. Why? What will happen? After a fashion, none of us can afford to care. We are all due back on planet Earth, where we thank you for the art.