When you enter Tacoma Art Museum, you have the option to sit down in a handsome little cinema. Short films play on a loop—trailers for the frontier art and Edvard Munch exhibits now on view. Both videos are professionally made by TAM and would fit into any boardroom. Their subject is art, but they are not art.
Then comes some extremely freaky stuff, as if you've switched to late-night public access.
This third video is an underwater/water's-edge phantasmagoria narrated by a disguised voice speaking garbled poetry. A mermaid appears before a window, swimming while smiling, for an audience that is implied to be you (you pervert). Another woman is dashed on the rocks at the water's edge of a bay harboring a mega cruise ship. Her bare skin is everywhere covered by a full-body wig of long brown curls, and she has barnacles for eyebrows. The same woman poses on land like a goddess at her own shrine as the altered voice ekes out, "I am the caretaker... I, a mermaid prostitute... A sanctuary. A self-care cloud."
Given that the video is called Sunken Hot House, and given that we are destroying oceans at unprecedented rates while jabbering about how to find time for "self-care" in busy lives that require consumer goods to be delivered within the next two hours—and that Hothouse is the name of Seattle's classic women's spa—well, given all that, there is nothing freaky or unusual about this video at all.
It simply reflects the world we're in.
Thank you for that re-disorientation, Dakota Gearhart. Gearhart is the Seattle artist who created the brilliant 11-minute disruption to the environment of corporate video production.
Sneaking Sunken Hot House into the trailer lineup highlights the way that artists in NW Art Now, the new survey of Northwest art at TAM, are invading the museum as best they can, and succeeding.
On the concrete wall of the museum's parking lot, there's a huge sign that looks like an official municipal posting. "NO DOGS," it says. It's by Portland artist Brad Adkins, who mounts authoritative-looking signs actually attached to no authority at all.
The signs represent a libertarian streak in Northwestern identity, says curator Rock Hushka, while his other chosen themes for this survey are the progressive standbys of environmentalism, social justice, and race/class/gender identity. His argument is that the Northwest incubates libertarian and liberal tendencies that often conflict, and so its art reflects desires and realities locked in contention.
There are calls to shared experience throughout the exhibition. In Humaira Abid's My Shame, a red stain appears on the white cushion of a genteel upholstered chair. A trail of sculpted ants marches on the blood the woman left behind.
Then there's Tacoma artist Jeremy Mangan's painting Pacific Northwest Desert Island, presenting the shared experience of being alone. A slice of Northwest landscape is marooned and set up for camping. Independent or lost? Crossing-over place (as indigenous people called this land) or escape?
Walla Walla artist Juventino Aranda's textiles reject the assumption that we all share the same Northwest landscape.
He takes discarded yardage from the Pendleton mills, where manufactured blankets mimic indigenous trade items from the Southwest and Mexico, and paints fields of color on them so they resemble the high art of Mark Rothko's color fields.
With titles like When All You Have Left Are Limes, Make Margaritas, Nod and Smile; Old and Faithful Since 1848 (Yellowstone), the pieces contrast his family's hard history of migrant work with the grandiosity and sublimity of art and landscape.
In 2007, 2009, and 2012, this survey was respectively conservative (leaving out photo and video almost entirely), a little less conservative, and a veer in the other direction, dominated by social practice art.
This year, the works are refreshingly varied, but Hushka's installation is frustratingly overcrowded (yet again for a Hushka show).
Hushka collaborates each time with an outside curator. Juan Roselione-Valadez of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami encouraged Hushka to keep the number of artists low this year. There are only 24 artists (296 applied) and 47 works, but they're stuffed into one gallery that bursts at the seams.
I suspect some works will be overlooked for lack of shouting: Rodrigo Valenzuela's Maria TV, for instance, an extraordinary video in which real-life maids explore acting out their own lives as well as soap-opera stereotypes, or the meditative, slow-crawling animal-language paintings of Asia Tail.
There are a few nice juxtapositions. C. Davida Ingram's two videos, of a group of women in a public space and a female couple in a private embrace, alternate on facing walls, speaking to each other.
SuttonBeresCuller have a smart, funny miniature version of the phallic eruption they showed last year at the Frye Art Museum. The artists are now portrayed as the delivery boys—the workers on the go—for big-time go-go patriarchal capitalists.
It's funny and smart, too, that SBC's runty inflammations shrink again up against a scroll of white paper that climbs 30 feet up the wall. A faintly rendered pencil drawing seems dainty at first. But once revealed, Amanda Manitach's drawing overtakes the space with its malevolent whisper. It includes words borrowed from the doomed, alcoholic, mentally ill actress Frances Farmer, who grew up in West Seattle, where in high school she was already typed a bad girl for denying God in an award-winning essay.
Bad girls, bad boys. One large photo depicts two men holding up a portrait of a third. The third man is painted, his face blurred by pixelation. But he's recognizable if your purpose is racial profiling: He is a Black man, no shirt, tattoos, gold chains, backward cap.
One of the men holding up the painting is Christopher Paul Jordan, who made the painting. He also made the photograph, an expression perhaps of how it feels for Jordan to present his work at all at TAM. He and others led the #StopErasingBlackPeople movement protesting TAM's Art AIDS America last year. His two additional works here are contrastingly spectral and indirect, displays of the artist carving out interior space for himself.
Wealth's effects on art are felt directly in NW Art Now. This used to be the Northwest Biennial, but the survey has been pushed off and will be delayed again as TAM builds additional wings for private collections. It's hard not to feel ambivalent; TAM is the only museum that promises to do the worthy work of surveying regional art at all.
Because art is a means rather than an end, it is easily pushed aside. Portland artist Lou Watson's piece by TAM's elevators is a joyful example of the freedom and pleasure—the necessity—in pointlessness.
It's a video of a stretch of Interstate 705 just outside the museum. When cars pass the center of the screen, a computer registers their colors and plays them as musical notes, in the rhythm of their passing. The score the footage created is printed out in sheets on the wall, speaking a language that's becoming antique unless you're a professional musician. The sounds themselves are unexpectedly poignant. Imagine that: "Section of the I-705, on a Wednesday, for Electric Piano.
Boom-and-bust cycles pass like freeway traffic, and another work in the show will look very different when Seattle inevitably stops being a place of proliferating sandwich boards on sidewalks.
Paul Komada first leaned two canvas panels against each other outdoors, in the old city center of Pioneer Square. Where words or a logo would go, he neutralized the ad space. He cut holes and loosely sewed into them fragile stretches of hand-knitting that depict a pattern of bricks to match the cobblestone streets and aging masonry around them. They advertise only what already is.