Painters and Emperors
Dutch and British Masterworks at Seattle Art Museum, 654-3100; and Stepping from the Shadows, Independent Media Center, 262-0721 (closes this week).

Lately I find myself wondering where the true expression of culture lies. Given the history of those who have sponsored culture (corporations, advertisers, government, church) how do we know the truth when it presents itself? What does thinking look like?

In search of an answer, I went to see the Dutch 17th-century works on loan to SAM from the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, and the graffiti art at the Independent Media Center. The Dutch paintings are exemplary Northern Renaissance works. There is the attention to detail (the crisp, lush fabrics, light glinting off gilded frames); the unexceptional secular story; and the addition of sin's sly presence.

There's the suggestion of lust, overindulgence, and hysterical lovesickness. The Doctor's Visit, by Jan Steen, is full of encoded jokes, such as the quackish doctor, the glass flask full of urine, and a lute which, according to Cincinnati art writer Jane Durrell, "has a meaning in Dutch street language of the time unfit for even today's sensibilities."

It's too facile to suggest that inside jokes constitute a true expression of culture, but I think there's a slender needle of truth in it. In the satire of acceptability, those genteel Dutch painters were telling viewers to look again. With this in mind, I spent some time looking at Amir Fallah's overwhelming graffiti installation.

It consists of two cherry red Philip Guston-like blobs spewing out an avalanche of cultural detritus in bright turquoise and green and pink. This avalanche is on the wall, on panels attached to the wall, on panels propped up against the wall and lying on the floor, and on the floor itself. The items being spewed (or consumed?) mix the familiar graffiti trope with the kinds of patterns and shapes found on the walls and windows of the mosques built by Mughal emperors. Its unclaimability is its satire, still telling us that not everything is as it seems. This--for now--is what thinking looks like. EMILY HALL