It was a small sculpture of a Greek temple on a lake that caught my attention, a clean glass-and-stone rendering of a ruin. One broken pillar lay across the steps, and its watery crystal reflection was white, luminous, and perfect, with the broken pillar intact. The philosophical proposition made by this work was clear: While the physical world decays, its ideal reflection remains--in imagination, in memory--intact, shimmering and glowing with a perfection never achieved in life.
Ed Wicklander's Temple is disconcertingly fitting for a hospital, which is where I saw it while walking down a hall near where my girlfriend's dad--my "father-out-law," as he likes to call himself--lay, acutely aware of the corruptibility of the flesh. I spent the next several days moving past the patients, nurses, and machines of Swedish Medical Center, and I was surprised not simply by the size and quality of the hospital's art collection, but by its strange appropriateness. No mere kitty-cat comfort and pastel decoration here; the paintings, photographs, and sculptures seem chosen to confront the sick and their waiting-room crowds with the immediacy and inevitability of death.
Consider Cathy Daley's two charcoal drawings of ballooning formal dresses: playful studies of exaggerated fashion that float without bodies, like debutante ghosts. Or Restless River by Margaretha Bootsma, a scratched black-and-white photograph of mountains surrounded by crinkled metal and what looks like a cake of rust. The mountains can be seen as a distant memory of beauty, obscured by the corruption of time. Or Crossing Paths, in which artist Dinh Q. Lê has woven together photographs of a young child, an old woman, and Buddhist statues in a meditation on the cycle of reincarnation from youth to old age and back again. Hell, even the Art Wolfe photograph--good old coffee-table-friendly Art Wolfe--is a blasted landscape with a few naked trees that look charred, as if by some volcanic disaster.
The art at other Seattle hospitals doesn't approach the seriousness that Swedish's collection projects. Group Health sports cool, impotent landscapes. Harborview's collection is more robust, but tilts toward the decorative and self-consciously ethnic, avoiding the subject of bodily decay, with one notable exception: Walking Wall, by Harriet Sanderson, has outfitted one hospital hallway with an undulating wainscot of ash walking canes. The effect is playful but not frivolous--an everyday object of age and infirmity given unexpected aesthetic whimsy.
The Swedish collection, by contrast, seems handpicked for its location: a place where people think about death. So imagine my surprise when hospital curator Diane Elliot told me she tries to make the collection a respite from the grim circumstances that usually haunt a hospital. In truth, the art is better than that. It is more powerful than the distracting evasions of greeting cards and more enduring than the mantras and antidepressants of grief counselors. It refuses to patronize us and instead invites philosophical engagement and reflection.
The collection certainly features work that is pretty and innocent. The Jacob Lawrence paintings of builders are bright and vigorous, and Ross Palmer Beecher's folk-arty quilt made of license plates is nothing but quirky. There are some lyrical abstracts from the Northwest School, like the sumi ink splashes by Mark Tobey. Even these echo the spiritual, otherworldly interests of Tobey and his contemporaries, entranced as they were with Asian mysticism.
But some pieces are clearly more serious. It would take a feat of interpretive contortionism not to see the Reaper looming in paintings like Jack Chevalier's, with its drippy, gloomy view down a trestle bridge, evoking that essentially Northwestern mood of wet, erosion, and decay. The painting's title? One Way Out.
Maybe I'm overly morbid or maybe it's just context--it's easy to see death everywhere when you're thinking about liver cancer. But if Elliot has failed to help us evade our troubling thoughts, she has failed beautifully. Walking through Swedish is an aesthetic tour of mortality, made more immediate by the wheelchairs and doctors bustling by. It's one of the most site-specific installations I've ever seen.