I've been of two minds ever since I heard there would be a big-box, catch-all, hypothesis-less "retrospective" exhibition devoted to an award—The Stranger's Genius Award—that's only four years old. Trying to squeeze 21 artists in five different disciplines into a single show with no theme except excellence is a nightmare. And inevitably, it's awkward when a museum, on a tight timeline and with a miniscule budget, fills a six-week hole in its exhibition schedule with a show of artists chosen by someone else, not a museum or gallery, but a bunch of ragtag critics. On the one hand, this was the Henry Art Gallery's way of conferring credibility on The Stranger while fulfilling its commitment to local artists. On the other, this hybrid—artists selected by The Stranger but arranged and explained by the Henry—doesn't show either of us at our wily, independent best. Good thing the artists are geniuses. They're what makes Take the Cake: Celebrating Stranger Genius Award Winners 2003—2006 worth seeing.
Vital 5 provocateur Greg Lundgren turned the tables on the museum last year by sending chief curator Elizabeth Brown an unsolicited rejection letter instead of the other way around, and now it hangs proudly framed on the exhibition wall—that bittersweet triumph that follows rejecting the rejecter. On the Boards channeled Christopher Guest for its video self-portrait. Literary curator Matthew Stadler arranged writers' tableaux and "didactic labels" based on interviews (Jonathan Raban calls his great-great-cousin Evelyn Waugh "a monstrous reactionary right-wing hyena") that are decidedly, and unexpectedly, unlame.
Lead Pencil Studio built place-making walls of scaffolding and netting enclosing the projection of a dazzling video from their temporary summer installation Maryhill Double. Home Sick, a half-sunken house as white and still as a tomb by SuttonBeresCuller, is a stunner, darker and more emotionally complete than anything they've done.
Henry curator Sara Krajewski was given the task of laying out this exhibition. She made some strange decisions: giving David Russo's indulgent experimental films an entire room while the Seattle premiere of James Longley's astonishing 22-minute documentary of an Iraqi boy with AIDS sits in a corner; drowning out visual artist Victoria Haven's delicate paper pieces in an area swarming with distractions.
Poor theater artists, honored on TV screens that remove whatever presence they have—but performance art in galleries is a classic museum problem.
The very first work you see is the most representative of this unusual show: a wall covered in pencil graffiti, bearing a neon phone number. It's an artwork called I'm Not Here by Susan Robb, whose voice is on the other end of that phone line, instructing callers to write on the gallery wall this message of mortification: "I'm not here. This isn't happening." Robb came up with this reinterpretation of one of her older works, called At Home Safe in Bed, as a clever and delicious response to her frustration about arguing with Krajewski about what to show. When Krajewski hears, "I'm not here. This isn't happening," she can relate, actually. "Sometimes," Krajewski says, "I felt like that in putting the show together."