Once you enter the East Gallery, you see a curving scrim which follows the line of the double-height gallery's second-floor balcony. The whole room's kept dark; all you can see clearly is the lit scrim. Two video projectors shoot computer-generated images onto the scrim: drippy streams running down its surface. Sensors around the gallery, when tripped by visitors, alter the image and sound in various ways. Some change the colors of the streams, some slow them down or stop them in synch with the music, some create what the Henry's publicist called "turbulence," breaking the streams into little globules. It all looks very cool.
These abstract, moving patterns look somewhat like oil paints being squeezed from tubes, no doubt an intentional reference to abstract expressionist painting. But Steinkamp's primary interest is to involve the viewer in a physical interaction with the work. Her use of screens that can be viewed from both sides is an important part of this. When someone walks between the projection units and the screen, his or her image appears as a black silhouette to people standing on the other side. New media art tends toward interactivity, but I rarely find the many point-and-click art projects one finds on the web very satisfying. Here, the interactivity is specific, visible, palpable, and rewarding.
As an added bonus, the low light conditions required for Steinkamp's work gave the museum an excellent opportunity to show, on the mezzanine/balcony above the gallery, four recently acquired aquatints by James Turrell. These are drawn from his light installations, where light beams cast onto the corners of rooms create the illusion of white, three-dimensional forms. Seen in a darkened space, these spotlit works pop out from the wall, with an illusionistic effect the equal of the original installations.
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Downtown at Seattle Art Museum is an installation as low-tech as Steinkamp's is high: How Do I Know How You Know? by Seattle artist, architect, and furniture designer Roy McMakin. McMakin courageously chose not to show a sampling of his current art production, but instead created an installation made up entirely out of found objects--cheap mass-produced furniture, to be specific. McMakin's own furniture is deeply, uncannily generic: his objects look exactly like what you'd expect a chair or table to look like, without resembling any specific style of furniture. McMakin has sought out store-bought furniture as typical as possible (which is to say cheap yet pretentious), then arranged the pieces in the gallery to look like the interior of a house: unpainted, unvarnished wood tables with turned, knobby legs (the artist refers to the style as "chateau/Bordeaux"); plain white toilets and refrigerators; mattresses and pillows with plain white covers. These mundane objects are arranged to create a domestic setting, with a dining room, living room, bathroom, and bedroom.
The oddity is that none of the furniture plays its normal role. A line of toilets with pillows thrown over them serve as a couch; a refrigerator on its back impersonates a coffee table; a chair takes the place of the toilet in the bathroom. The house's walls are made with stacked mattresses or refrigerators, in a brick-like "running bond" pattern. This pattern, where each row is displaced half a brick over from the one underneath it, reappears throughout the space, a kind of shorthand for domesticity.
McMakin's furniture and sculptures (which can be seen at his showroom, Domestic Furniture in Madrona) sometimes play with the displacing effects he's trying for here. One piece in particular, a chest of drawers which looks like a double kitchen sink from the back, elegantly plays a game with your categorizing impulses. It's a sink! It's a dresser! It's a dresser that looks like a sink!
But here, the either/or/neither game doesn't reach the uncanny heights of his furniture and sculpture, and generally, the installation lacks the cool precision of the works McMakin manufactures himself. The displacements are too simple, and too untidy--a row of toilets with pillows on them still looks more like what it is than a couch. But given the ease with which he could've just shown a sampling of his work, this is a brave effort, and definitely something to see.