The first thing I heard walking out of the elevator was Kimya Dawson's voice. I remember thinking, "Where's the party at?" as I scoured the nooks and crannies of Bellevue Arts Museum's top floor, eventually finding my way to a gallery tucked away in the corner, full of Seattle artist Clyde Petersen's latest work. A jaunty mix of Pacific Northwest punk and post-punk music blared from tiny speakers, engulfing patrons in a PNW punky sonic haze.
Petersen's exhibition Merch & Destroy is a product of and an ode to life on the road. "I'm a touring musician and I've been working for bands for about 20 years," Petersen says. "Either driving them or playing in them." Hence, the music of Kimya Dawson, one of many artists Petersen has worked with.
Merch & Destroy is unlike anything I've ever seen before in a museum—it does not feature photography or paintings, lithographs or marble busts, but cardboard. And it's hilariously fun.
"Cardboard is very accessible, and it's malleable and easy to work with," Petersen tells me, adding, "I have a long childhood history with box forts." That history is most obviously reflected in the two giant cardboard structures dominating the space. One is a slightly-larger-than-life replica of a Ford Econoline van—a budget-friendly mode of transport for touring indie bands—"loading out" for a show. The other is a re-creation of a punk-rock club greenroom, replete with a wilting vegetable platter and dick graffiti.
The gallery itself is painted completely black with a double yellow line on the floor, evoking the blacktop highways that Petersen has traveled. The exhibition also noticeably smells a lot like cardboard—a strange encounter in a museum setting. When I entered the space, my mind immediately flashed to moving, backaches, stairwells, stress, sweat, the state of constantly being in transit, occupying the in-between.
The van and greenroom have never been exhibited before. Merch & Destroy also features items from previous Petersen shows or collaborations—the most interesting being Shredders, a collection of fantasy guitars by Petersen and Seattle artist Darius X. Each of the five guitars either enacts some sort of change the artists want to see in the world or is a tribute to a woman musician, such as Janelle Monáe or Dolly Parton. The best and perhaps most useful fantasy guitar, in my opinion, is Slayer. Shaped like the head of a growling wolf, this guitar kills rapists in local music scenes. Exactly how the guitar does that is left up to your imagination.
That's what makes this exhibition so interesting—the extent and intricacy of Petersen's imagination and storytelling. The world building and tiny details of his creations—like the very visible Washington State vehicle registration slip in the van or the crate full of hilariously titled made-up vinyl records—make this exhibition feel lived-in. As if I had crawled inside of his brain and got to poke around for a while.
Petersen doesn't work in mystic, impenetrable symbolism; he manages to translate the drudgery and unglamorous bits of touring in a way that makes you feel in on the joke, despite never having learned any power chords whatsoever. It was the most fun I'd had in a museum in a long time.