All day long last Tuesday, there were four kinds of activities going on at once in the Frye Art Museum's easternmost gallery.
One: People sat and talked as if this room were their regular cafe.
Two: People listened to the music on the speakers—a 2008 album of settings of James Joyce poems by singers like Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth and Peter Buck from R.E.M.
Three: People looked at the art arranged single file on the walls, made by 36 local artists, one piece per artist.
Four—this was the wild card: People dug through cubbyholes filled by those artists with anything the artists wanted to put in there. Manifestos from a class of University of Washington art students 30 years ago. The script for a dirty one-act play starring the reader. A collection of hair sent through the mail. Art to be picked up and handled. Encouraging letters from Dad. A contender for most beautiful handmade book in the world. A comic book on the history of a defunct local gallery. Wrapped presents left for visitors to take home.
After I've been digging for several hours, the guard tells me that some people have been staying an entire workday. This room is a mile-deep mine into the bedrock of Seattle art history since 1970.
The title of the show is Chamber Music, in reference to the somewhat unfortunately neoclassical poems by James Joyce of the same name—but also it's a nod to modesty, to a concert in a small chamber rather than a symphonic hall. The poems happened to be the first thing Joyce published, the same year that the Frye meatpacking family began collecting the art that would become the origin of the Frye Art Museum (1907).
Scott Lawrimore, the curator, commissioned a giant piece of furniture for the exhibition, adapting another historical curiosity. The Fryes had a velvet gossip chair with three seats arranged triangularly—for triple-vantage viewing of their eccentric collection of late 19th and early 20th-century oil paintings. Lawrimore's commission is a mega version of the gossip chair. It's a hard, white symbol with three long, curving arms that splay out from the center, each one a bench. The 36 cubbyholes are in the backs of the benches.
Chamber Music is the first inkling of what Lawrimore—formerly an adventurous and high-profile private contemporary art dealer—means to do with his newfound tenure as Frye curator. He's starting out a novice historian. The Frye has a frozen-in-amber, Frick-like side, but it's also experimental and interdisciplinary. Chamber Music fills a gap by giving the contemporary era a historical treatment. Specifically, it responds to the fact that art in Seattle since the 1960s has not been well documented, taught, or art- historicized. (Los Angeles came to this conclusion recently, too, and organized a citywide series of exhibitions on LA art since 1980—historicizing is in the air.)
Lawrimore chose the 36 artists, met each individually, selected for each one of Joyce's poems, and asked for a new work in response, as well as contributions for the cubbyholes, where the artists are free to change their displays as often as they like during the run of the show. In the auditorium, Lawrimore hosted a series of lectures on Seattle art, beginning with a talk on indigenous expression. Indigenousness is central to Chamber Music: This is a show about, by, and for a home base.
Discovery runs through it. Carl Chew was a leading figure on the scene at one point, then he stopped making formal art entirely in a protest against the market. But he never stopped regularly sending elaborate handmade stamps in the mail to a long list of recipients. In his cubbyhole at Chamber Music is a catalog of his vivid, ongoing mailings, and displayed on the gallery wall is a layered and cut-open book to be paged through.
Or take Bill Ritchie. He'd been a printmaker, but in the 1970s he began to believe that video was the new printmaking, so he inaugurated a video program at UW. He ended up being too radical for the place, but word has it he's still hanging around Queen Anne, running a little gallery called Little Gallery. In his cubbyhole, there's an antiquated hand-printer in a glass box that uses chocolate for ink. On the other end of the UW spectrum, Lawrimore included the exacting observational painter and emeritus professor Norman Lundin, who contributed a stormy and romantic landscape painting.
Younger artists are plenty present: Joey Veltkamp, Sierra Stinson, Serrah Russell, et cetera. Influential forces not known primarily as visual artists are here, too: composer Byron Au Yong, architect Alan Maskin, local-contemporary-art-godmother Anne Focke (founder of and/or gallery: Bask in its archive in the cubbyhole), PUNCH Gallery as a collective. PUNCH's contribution reflects its unique ethos: All five members live in rural Washington, but they house their gallery in Pioneer Square, and their contribution to Chamber Music is a foggy field with five tally marks, made of, the label says, "Mount St. Helens ash, mist, and mixed media on paper, applied with a chainsaw."
These are not the same artists Lawrimore showed at his gallery. Rather, Chamber Music suggests that he recognizes a distinction between the roles of museum curator and private dealer (something New York high-flyer Jeffrey Deitch might have been wiser to heed when he took the reins at the now-embattled LA Museum of Contemporary Art). But if Chamber Music is quiet and deep where Lawrimore Project was showier, it's only a difference of degree. Lawrimore says he intends to excavate some of these lesser-known stories for future exhibitions, and he's made the case that there's plenty to find.