A 13-foot-long boast appeared at Roq La Rue Gallery last March. It was a hot, red painting called Arcadia, of three figures ensconced on a bed in a forest. The woodsy idyll was rendered silly by the curtained bed, appearing out of place Bedknobs and Broomsticks–style, but a certain seriousness still governed the painting because it was rendered in brushstrokes that themselves were serious, studied, worked. One corner visually quoted Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the famous painting of a row of prostitutes on display. The whole silly/serious tradition of European painting tumbled to mind—Manet's picnicking men in suits with naked ladies, Titian's come-hither recliners, Fragonard's frothy girls with teeny feet swinging from trees.
Arcadia, notably, is by a young Seattle artist named Kimberly Trowbridge. She lived her early life in Everett, then moved to Indiana, then to New York for a bit, then back to Seattle for graduate school at the University of Washington. Now she teaches at Gage Academy and other places, and privately, out of her own studio. She spends hours every single week, still, painting from a live model. She's a highly trained, highly experienced, and very prolific artist who shows often, and her latest solo, at Blindfold Gallery, is what comes after the bluster of Arcadia.
I first noticed her bluster in 2011, when she made a painting called I Am Nature. It was a fractured view of a woman and a forest intertwined. "I am nature" is what Jackson Pollock said when somebody asked him to describe his work's relationship to nature. Well, then, so am I, Trowbridge seemed to say, airing her anxiety of influence—the homage, the resistance, the adaptational moves. I could admire her chutzpah, but could I really relate to another fractured-plane, after-modernist painting of women and woods, no matter who made it? Not really.
The new show at Blindfold, Story Tell Her, is still blustery (yeah), but something new has blown open. Walking in, you're greeted by a giant altarpiece Trowbridge built, with a very large oil painting in the center and shelves down one side. The oil painting depicts, again, an allegorical subject lifted from "high" European painting: a rider on a rearing-up horse, triumphing over a trampled victim below (both are naked, and the overall palette, throughout the show, is forest/fire). It's a war painting. But Trowbridge calls it Tantrum.
She's mocking her drama. The altar surrounding Tantrum is made of wood scraps, off-cuts from her own handmade stretcher bars. Across the top of the altar, where there might be an ornate carving if this were an actual Italian altarpiece, there's instead a discarded plank bearing the shipping imprint "FRAGILE" with the arrows pointing down at the tantrum.
She's also framing her drama in historical context. On the shelves that run down the side of that central oil painting, there are black-and-white ink paintings, each depicting a Xeroxed copy of a page from an art history book. The specifics don't matter—all you can make out is an old-timey painting in the midst of text rendered as illegible scratches. This is how people who grow up in Everett and Indiana first learn about art. Which is sort of sad and very familiar to me, and, I imagine, not so uncommon.
Trowbridge's entire show at Blindfold is a struggle to bring together painting and furniture. She transformed the entire gallery. She spray-painted patterns on fabric, hung them as curtains and draped them over chairs. You were tempted, but not actually moved, to interact, to slide the curtains and sit on the chairs.
Painting is intimate but not entirely close, still an object separate from you, something you face with your body but can't meld with, maybe like a dresser with a mirror. On one wall of the gallery, a pair of paintings, of a naked woman and an evergreen wood, hangs beneath the ornately carved wood beam that topped Trowbridge's childhood bedroom dresser.
Coincidentally, a bunch of Seattle artists who've formed a reading group (Trowbridge is not one of them) chose an essay this month about installational painting, Anne Ring Petersen's 2010 "Painting Spaces." Artists of the 1990s and 2000s, Petersen writes, have rethought painting, making paintings not as pictures but as 3-D objects, as sites or places in themselves—paintings as installations. They connect beyond their frames. You see them in museums and galleries hung as flags or robes, leaned like protest signs, used to demarcate parts of a room, worn on the body, draped to form architecture or furniture. Among many examples seen locally: Rashid Johnson, Roy McMakin, Mika Tajima.
Trowbridge lives and breathes painting. With this new spillage of painting into furniture and decor, it feels like she's looking for some ecstatic union with this eccentric thing, painting—to be immersed in it, to immerse you in it. You can feel her fantasy pushing on you, abstract and intense. It does feel like a force of nature.
There's another young Seattle artist showing a dazzling new installational painting right now: Julie Alpert, whose Shape Shifters looks as if a painting exploded, its parts and pieces scattered across an 8-by-8-by-10-foot space in one corner of the gallery at Cornish College of the Arts. Some of the shrapnel became shadowy and flat, some popped up into three dimensions.
A painted pool of black oozes onto the floor from a table with a lamp on it. A ring of cardboard keys sits on the table, its shadow painted rather than cast. (Sources of light are all confused, which is a major mental pleasure.) That same cluster-of-keys shape reappears on a wall, twice, but rotated to look newly menacing, like a mushroom cloud. A painted wallpaper pattern travels off the wall and spills into an actual bowl on a shelf, covering over rose patterns incised into bowl like a mudslide might coat a shrub. The roses get emphasized by such obvious hiding.
There's one whole area of the installation involving climbing flames, proliferating shadows, and traced outlines that shouldn't be talked about, just seen.
In a video interview at the entrance to the gallery, Alpert alludes to her interest in industrial patterns as concealment or protection devices, used to hide filth or underlying forms, like the carpeting in hotel lobbies or at cheap restaurants. Shape Shifters, as bright and fluorescent and playful as it is, ultimately has the feeling of a noir mystery, where a series of mind-bending clues leads to more clues and nothing more.