There's rot growing on the walls at Western Bridge, starting upstairs, where a dollhouse made of a slick and lumpy substance is collapsed and oozing green oil. Where the oil reachesthe wall it erupts in blooms of mold, and the blooms don't stop there: There's a patch on the other side of the wall in another room. The sculpture and the mold are only representations made of rubbery plastic and watercolor—they're part of a work of art by Stranger Genius Alex Schweder La—but in another sense they feel real because there's death in the air: Western Bridge announced last week that it is closing in April 2012.
"I'm not sure it's useful to have the pall of death cast over this place," director Eric Fredericksen said as he laid out snacks for the opening last Thursday. I said it was inevitable. "It's not sad! It's not sad!" he argued. "There are many more examples of things that have outlived their purposes than that have ended too soon. And the fetish for preserving everything actually gets in the way of new things emerging."
True. But let's take a moment, allow the feelings to come, as the therapists say. When artist/curator Cable Griffith heard the news, he mourned, "Will the last adventurous art space to close in Seattle please turn off the lights?" (This anxiety comes from the recent closure of Howard House and the threatened closure of Lawrimore Project, along with the steady erosion over the past several years of alternative spaces such as Crawl Space, 911 Media Arts Center, and CoCA.) Wherever the news was mentioned online, the internet lit up with frowny emoticons and
Western Bridge has been a huge force for good. It has commissioned, bought, and brought works, big and small, by artists from Seattle and around the world. Remember the car buried in a snowdrift! The bouncehouse! The monster movie! The dance in darkness, seen through infrared goggles! From each show a work is donated to Seattle's contemporary art museum, the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Western Bridge's double-height back room alone is bigger than most galleries, and its whole two-story space is a work of art designed by Roy McMakin. It's like a small museum without the bureaucracy of a museum. And nobody throws a better party. So, yeah, there'll be some moping. Is it too late to ask: Do you have to close? Really?
When Western Bridge opened in April 2004, its owners—Seattle contemporary art collectors Bill and Ruth True; Bill's family has owned the oil-and-investments company Gull for five generations, since the late 19th century—did not mention it was temporary. But Fredericksen claims they always thought of it as a more-or-less 10-year project. It became less. "When the economy hit, it became an eight-year project," Ruth told me in a phone conversation. Fredericksen disagreed with Ruth but deferred to Bill to explain why Western Bridge is closing in 2012. (Bill didn't return my call.)
The landscape of Seattle art is shifting uneasily, like Schweder La's installation, called This Apple Tastes Like Our Living Room Used to Smell. The sculpture and mold at Western Bridge—the mold will continue to spread every time Schweder La comes back to Seattle from Berlin, where he now lives—are just a part of This Apple. It also includes a series of other little houses that will be decomposing in the Trues' garden. Seeds are embedded in the biodegradable plastic houses, so as they decompose in a timed sequence, plants grow up in their wake. As a side job, Schweder La used to de-mold houses in Seattle; he'd strip away the vinyl siding to reveal wood so soft and mulchy he could push his hand right through it. Looking at his art, you're unsettlingly aware that buildings, instead of being stable second skins that could compensate for our unstable bodies, are instead like our bodies. (His favorite word: "leaky.") Accepting this means accepting a certain level of violence.
Josh Faught's art is not easily accepted, either. He's the other artist featured now, in a solo show of crocheted and handwoven sculptures called Procedures to Reduce Contamination and Stimulate Better Living. A banner at the entrance addresses itself, in scrawled hot-pink spray paint, "TO ALL THOSE PERSONS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THIS PREVIOUSLY UNNAMED DISEASE..." Next to this banner is a smaller, blank one—bringing to mind Warhol's enigmatic "blanks," like the one in Double Elvis at Seattle Art Museum—and a mirror resting on the floor in which you see yourself. The disease is unknown, but judging from the show's crafty/queer materials—sequined scrapbooking stickers, French manicure press-on nails, potpourri pies, and political pins with slogans like "Someone You Know Is Gay"—its chief, systemic symptom is shame. Bleached hemp yarn, a "cleansed" substance, is the base material for this new series. That's in part a response to the fact that Faught's sculpture got moths when it was exhibited last year at SAM, he explained during his talk. "I remember when Marisa [SAM curator] called to tell me," he said. "I felt like I'd given the museum an STD."
Procedures to Reduce Contamination is based on a list of rules from a defunct bathhouse that the artist found rummaging through the Pacific Northwest Gay and Lesbian Archives in Portland. They sound like rules from an office: No food except in the break room, no lit candles, no moving of furniture. The rules are numbered and appear in gold and sequined letters, crowded at the edges of the textiles, which Faught intends as a sign of urgency, as if they've run out of room to speak. Each piece is a self-contained mess of hairy yarn, woven protuberances, glittery and shiny texts, and streaks of paint (some of which is nail polish) on top of finely woven surfaces that look like afghan blankets or feature folksy patterns like holiday wreaths.
The bathhouse and the farmhouse joined in such physical proximity brings a familiar American shiver. There's both promise and threat in the sense of encroaching formlessness, of spreading, of the erasure of reassuring separations. Change of all kinds—from the unclear shifting of political alliances to the decay that happens every second in every person—is uncomfortably popping out of Faught's and Schweder La's surfaces like a rash. Are we about to be doomed or about to be saved? It makes you want to do something.