When Seattle's contemporary art museum devotes its largest exhibition space to showing art that it already owns—art it does not have to pay to borrow—for 17 straight months during the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, well, you do the math. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this—except that another mother of invention is an artist, and no new artists are being given a chance in this big space for almost a year and a half. But there is good news, too: Now, nine months into this monster exhibition that changes every few months (and, monstrously, is titled Vortexhibition Polyphonica), a sweet spot has been hit with the Henry Art Gallery's summer mixture of paintings, textiles, photographs, drawings, sculptures, and installations.
On the floor, Polly Apfelbaum's fingers of red-and-blue dyed velvet spread like a city of caterpillars. In counterpoint is Victoria Haven's red tape Supermodelcity pinned onto the wall, fractal-ish and casting strict shadows. Another, nearby pairing: the glow framed by windows and photographed by Luisa Lambri, on the wall beneath Roy McMakin's two hard-as-nails windows-as-ready-mades, hung adjoining the actual window high in the museum wall, a smallish light source usually overlooked in this double-height room.
Highlights from various periods in the Henry's history are here. There's a row of gilt-framed paintings by, among others, Pierre Étienne Théodore Rousseau (a landscape circa 1852, collected by the museum's founder, Horace Henry). Nearby are three paintings containing the history of the 20th century: A Cruise to Southern Waters, a 1988 portrait of raging black-and-blond stereotypes by Robert Colescott; the cartoon-and-graffiti-influenced Conquitos by Manuel Ocampo, from 1989, in which a female skeleton stabs a chubby, dark-skinned man in the head with a syringe; and the streaky, stick-figurey oil-on-linen Horror Film Cat on Horse by Ellen Berkenblit, from 2000, which is fairly literally titled.
Early modernism is well represented in the still-vibrant Trees and El by Stuart Davis, from 1931. A fragment of a Peruvian tabard (or short coat) made of cotton with parrot and duck feathers, dated sometime between A.D. 900 and 1500, seems to be a reminder of modernism's paradoxical desire for the past. Meanwhile, Robert Sperry's hippie-ceramic skull with golden goggles, Spirit of '76, made in 1975, captures the hunger for futures and the fear of them, as do a pair of black-and-white etchings by Russian duo Komar and Melamid, which depict leading New York museums in a state of ruin, à la Hudson River Schooler Thomas Cole's fantasy-ruination paintings in the 19th-century Course of Empire series.
Vortexhibition Polyphonica, as its multivocal title suggests, is an advertisement for the eclecticism of the Henry's collection. This iteration, which reflects a second round of additions and subtractions by chief curator to associate curator Sara Krajewski's original installation last fall, is the third version of the show. Most memorably, earlier incarnations paired, say, early photographic abstractions (Weston's sensual Pepper from 1930) with a black 1950s corset and a vitrine full of shoes, from red sexy 1980s pumps to women's sandals with built-in roller skates from the 1970s to 11-inch-tall sandals from 19th-century Syria—bridges, really, more than sandals—decorated with inlaid mother of pearl, and Han dynasty silk shoes for bound feet, with glinting metallic threads. A series of prayer rugs has also been intense and unexpected, one inviting one person to get on the floor and participate until stopped by a guard.
What is the specific magic of the new iteration? Simple: a higher number of better works. Or is it that simple? Is it also the conglomeration, in the mind, of all the other works that have come before and the slow unveiling of a rare glimpse at the Henry's identity? In this way the show accomplishes what the best collections shows do, even if not all the objects have been stellar: It rewards prolonged looking. And this is the first time that the permanent collection has been on regular view since 2005. The Henry holds roughly 24,000 objects in all; VP targets the unknown and usually unseen. After March 2011, these visions go back into the dark.