Gretchen Bennett is perhaps Seattle's greatest artist's artist, a modest grande dame who brings and holds people together—and who is always working. On any given day, you can find her walking in the International District where she lives, wearing a focused expression that makes her look lost—not in thought but in deep observation of her surroundings. Her work is always about landscapes, and often about mapping, about being located somewhere and being absent from somewhere else. It's romantic but specific, virtuosic but DIY, and never academic, always personal.
When she tracks geography, it's through dislocation. After she moved back to her native Northwest from Brooklyn a few years ago, she stenciled the streets of her new neighborhood with symbols from her old one. Using street stickers, she pieced together unbelievably elaborate collages—one, seen at Western Bridge, in the size of a 19th-century history painting—after photographs of the places she missed. This year, she turned to the remote but overly familiar geography of Kurt Cobain's Seattle, re-creating grainy YouTube stills of the singer and of his fans in impossibly luminous, rubbed-on colored pencil. As usual—Bennett has been shortlisted for this award before—she achieved the perfect, slightly painful balance of lost and found. JEN GRAVES
Jeffry Mitchell was supposed to peak years ago. He had his first solo show in Japan, where he studied ceramics, in 1984. Seattle's contemporary art museum, the Henry Art Gallery, honored him with a survey—sometimes, but not always, reserved for the high point in an artist's career—back in 2001. In addition to being held in the permanent collections of area museums, his work quietly lives in unexpected places, too: at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in the collection of the New York Public Library.
What is most impressive is his continuing expansion into installation. In 2006 at Western Bridge, he created The Tomb of Club Z, a monument in white ceramic and frostinglike cast paper to an infamous Seattle bathhouse. It was devastatingly beautiful, and very, very sad. This year, for the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards at Portland Art Museum, he created another shrine, a zigguratlike facade whose reverse side, like a dollhouse, contained a menagerie of sparkling white and gilded ceramic animals and skulls in "rooms" lined with tinfoil and lit by naked bulbs. Across the room was a large, meditative, black-on-black pattern painting. If Mitchell has a medium, it is devotion. JEN GRAVES
Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen
So many people got so excited about these two brothers this year that it seemed a little silly. After showing up seemingly out of nowhere, they found themselves having simultaneous shows at Seattle Art Museum, and at Western Bridge and Howard House.
But they didn't come from nowhere. They came from here, having grown up in Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula, and having gone their separate but similar ways as young adults: Oscar Tuazon to a prestigious art school and a life lived half in Paris, half in Tacoma (his daughter's name is Tacoma), and Eli Hansen to a life as a trained and working glassblower.
In their work, they draw together many of the untended strands of contemporary art and Northwest identity politics: They theorize and also hand-make, they are urbanites and remote-outpost survivalists, they display shiny reflective baubles as well as utilitarian homemade tattoo guns. In their breakable shelters made of liquor containers, in their folded and faceted photographs, in their gemlike solar cookers, in their tested-for-strength architectural columns made of beer bottles—there is not only sexiness but the feeling of a new home, not a frontier based on what is left behind, but a sturdy, new, crazy idea. JEN GRAVES
Susie Lee's appearance on the scene in 2006 was kind of wild. She was the clear standout at the show of University of Washington MFA graduates that year, and by the end of the year, she was selling out editions of her work at Miami Beach Art Basel, where she was represented by Seattle's hot new dealer Scott Lawrimore.
But beginner's luck exists even in art, and the real test of Lee's promise was this year, with her first solo show at Lawrimore Project. Before that, her best-known work was Consummation, an elegant, erotic little abstraction that involved her own body represented in a length of wood, J. S. Bach, and a video of two burning strands of twine projected horizontally across the wood. It insisted on primal disconnections, between people and between dimensions (especially digital and physical), and their refusal to resolve.
Her Lawrimore Project show, Refrain, was a Herculean effort that included a giant virtual rainstorm and several complex pieces involving sound, video, and sculpture. But it also demonstrated—especially in one elegiac landscape made of moving liquids and a video projected through a tank of water onto a screen above, in a dark room—that Lee can make the complicated technologies she uses disappear. Her work can feel like a new, naturally occurring discovery. JEN GRAVES