Just over a year ago, the names Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon were on the lips of exactly nobody. Today, there may as well be a banner over the entrance to Seattle with "ELI AND OSCAR" emblazoned on it. This city is in the throes of Eli and Oscar mania. Because they are the hottest couple out there, let's call them Elar. The two young brothers—their last names are different because Oscar took his ex-wife's exotic name—grew up in Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula, but they have never showed in Seattle before. If they were overlooked before, now they risk being overexposed. They're currently showing in no less than four prestigious spots: at the commercial gallery Howard House, in a group show at the private collection space Western Bridge, and on the third and fourth floors at Seattle Art Museum, in two distinct exhibitions. Where is the mayor? We need the keys to the city!
The ascension of Elar begins probably in early 2007, when writer Matthew Stadler recommends them to Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen, who recommends them to SAM curator Michael Darling, who gets one of their works for the museum's permanent collection and who sits on the Betty Bowen Award committee, which selects Tuazon as its 2007 winner. The commercial galleries jump, and Howard House lands the deal. Everyone is so excited that they mount all their shows at once.
I've never heard of such a confluence of events in this city for an artist just out of the gate. Why them and why now?
Before getting to that, let's consider what's on view. Exterior gallery windows covered in diagonal stripes of "solar" black acrylic paint. Homemade tattoo guns powered by parts from a Walkman and a toy fire truck. A small, sad-looking found note calling for broad "citizen action." A wall of handblown glass "bricks" shaped like liquor bottles. A mean-looking ax honed to a supersharp edge. A length of charred wood. A column made of stacked brown beer bottles the artists say will support 17,000 pounds without breaking. Photographs of geodesic domes in Poulsbo and Indianola, folded so that the photograph has a faceted surface similar to the one pictured. A rhomba icosa dodecahedron, a polyhedron that has 32 faces and 60 edges and looks like a trippy crystal, set on a tinted-glass table that looks like the cocaine has been brushed off it in a hurry. A mirrored structural truss meant to double as a solar cooker. A grainy Super 8 of a teenaged Tuazon tattooing his own neck with the number of frames he counted on a Super 8 film roll (1,380). The alternative alphabet of a libertarian-hippie group started in Oregon that preached total detachment from society, whose slogan was "Appear normal, or don't appear."
Are you getting the idea? Their art is eco-macho. It taps into that old and apparently endlessly rich metaphor of the Northwest as a place rooted in the interpenetration between the urban and the rural, a place that's both somehow ahead of the mainstream and off the grid. The idea has been cultivated by Northwest artists and writers from time immemorial. Just to name a few recent examples: Charlie Krafft, with his Mystic Sons of Morris Graves crew and his weapon ceramics (Krafft was also the "mayor" of Fishtown, the 1970s artist colony in abandoned fishing shacks on the banks of the Skagit River, which Hansen and Tuazon feature in one of their folded photographs); Gretchen Bennett, with her Native American blankets, street stickers in the form of Mount Rainier, and colored-pencil adaptations of Kurt Cobain on YouTube (not to mention the Aberdeen native himself); Claude Zervas, with his Eva Hesse–like Northwest rivers and passages made in thin, white cold-cathode fluorescents with their dangling wires; Susan Robb, with her both hopeful and dark insistence on humans as animals. This is the current Northwest School. Hansen and Tuazon are a good addition to it, but they are no better than these artists, four shows or not. (They also just happen to benefit from champions who, like them, have backgrounds in and are fascinated by architecture.)
That does not mean that their work is an act. As much as it is grounded in the land, feminist, and performance art of the decade in which they were born (the '70s) as well as in the atomized assemblage of currently fashionable sculpture, it hits fresh notes, too, and it represents a clearly authentic and quite personal relationship between the artists and the landscape of this region. What Krafft has—a curmudgeonly sense of the real—so do Hansen and Tuazon.
Their installation at SAM, a cleverly improvised "shelter," establishes them again as urban mountain men. The installation refers to a rudimentary shelter they actually built in the snowy woods on a remote island north of Kodiak, Alaska. Provided as documentary evidence (and functioning also as a double-dog-dare-you tourist brochure) is a modest little (nonfolded) photograph of the bare-bones shelter in Alaska. The implication is that you can go there and visit, and at the same time the rickety appearance and ridiculously remote location seem inherently poised to question the sanity of anyone making the trip.
Elar presents something between portraiture of social detachment and fantasy for aspiring outsiders. By leaving their works messy with duct tape, epoxy, and other evidence of boyish making, they bring together the separate traditions of the architect/designer and the builder. (They also show up at places, like their artist's talk, with literal dirt on their hands, bringing the material to the immaterial.)
Their best works are both worldly and innocent, like Fortune Teller, a cheaply constructed tabletop diorama that contains at its center a hidden glass egg visible only in glowing reflections along the back of the box. It's good for nothing but a vision, like the failed architectural projects the artists love, which provide a view forward if not a way.