Sometimes a Seattle artist just needs to go to Tacoma. Things are wound too tightly in Seattle, too formal, everybody watching. In Tacoma, given a supportive curator, anything might happen. Last week, the supportive curator of Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound, Carol Adelman, worked quietly on her computer while Seattle artist Jeffry Mitchell made a royal mess of the place.
It was Wednesday afternoon before a Thursday-morning opening, and Mitchell was still at his cluttered craft tables, occasionally running outside to dash off a spray-painted skull reminiscent of Warhol's late silk screens. Several distinct installations could be detected across the low-ceilinged vista of this sprawl: strings of paper skulls flying out from a frame on the wall, a kiosk of silk screens advertising an upcoming project by Seattle artist Dan Webb that involves a gnome watering plants, an old bookshelf turned into a totemish stack of cut-paper woodland scenes, a Picasso bull head on a stick body with red lightbulbs for balls, a cardboard owl-bat casting a menacing shadow on a sheet of plastic cut in the general manner of Hannibal Lecter's strung-up prison victim (or possibly a chicken), and, finally, lanterns of various sorts. It's a party.
The fact that some installations were unfinished was immaterial: Even the completed ones lack finish in a vital way. The show is half substance and half shadow. Everything is loose and contingent and humble and exhilarated. Climbing up one corner is a skull shadow the size of a small car but somehow also faint and missable.
The show is sponsored, adorably, by the campus Sustainability Advisory Committee. All the works but one are new, but the materials are recycled (from campus bins or Mitchell's own work), and creative moves are inventively reworked, too, from Warhol, Picasso, Webb, Jason Rhoades (all those lights and cords), Cady Noland, Ree Morton. Mitchell has never been stingy about shout-outs. His promotion of Webb's as-yet-unveiled public-art gnome—the kiosk even reads "DAN WEBB" across the bottom—is unadulterated admiration. (The two artists are in no manner of cahoots.)
Years ago, Mitchell yawped similarly in this same gallery for a show curated by the supportive Greg Bell and called Life. The new show, Some Things and Their Shadows, has the added bonus of an exquisite adjoining show of 20th-century Mexican political prints by Arturo Garcia Bustos and Rina Lazo: Diego Rivera's great wood-block-printed defiance (and chin), women with heads down in the prison shower (hung next to Lazo's own jailing papers for her crime of supporting the 1968 student movement). Both shows have the same spirit of fuck-yeah liberation. Pump fist.
It is high time that an exhibition of macho glass art had a weight bench in the corner. Sharing the room with glass pieces on pedestals at Tacoma's Helm Gallery is a Weider 245 Training System. Artists Eli Hansen and Joey Piecuch, in Truths We Forgot to Lie About, have titled this ready-made If I Had to Do It Over Again, I'd Rather Be Feared Than Loved, quoting a criminal who regretted not having scared his girlfriend off ratting him out. Knowing how to mock well is another adolescent-guy trick; Hansen and Piecuch employ it to sly effect.
If you add enough clichés together, do you get a whole truth? Hansen and Piecuch, like the proverbial Northwest "mystics," scoured the local landscape for this exhibition. It wasn't a spiritual search—they drove around retrieving Northwesty stuff: Puget Sound water; brick from the homes of Frances Farmer, Ted Bundy, and Kurt Cobain; radioactive Hanford soil; pea-sized pink salmon eggs; beard hair (both men are quite hairy); soil from a Green River Killer dump site in Kent; hellebore flowers from Chief Sealth's grave. These generic but beloved Northwest elements are combined, suspended, and preserved with high-strength alcohol in (too precious) handblown glass bottles. Their labels detail the ingredients, a borrowing of Dario Robleto's alchemical process.
But Robleto is sober; Piecuch (background in botany and chemistry) and Hansen (a glassblower) are not. The underlying motif of Truths is altering consciousness, whether by drink, drugs, or burrowing in the minds of icons.
The glass pieces sharing the front room with the weight machine are fermenting jars with pouches of peaches floating on sugar water. Five mason jars of clear liquor—moonshine they made—are lined up on a table like the identical black boxes, with illegal drugs sealed inside, by Seattle artist Jack Daws. Two lusciously filthy cheap-print photographs of their basement cooking setup (very meth lab) hang on the wall, encased in thin layers of slightly obscuring, slightly glamorizing bubbly clear resin.
At the opening, while everyone else got drunk on their liquor, they didn't drink any, and when they said they'd meet everybody at the bar later, they never showed up. Truths We Forgot to Lie About isn't either an ironic depiction of a tourist trap or an outpouring of identifications from two native Northwesterners: It's both.