Pioneer Square was Seattle's first neighborhood. Based on the way things look down there, it's reasonable to imagine that the whole project of building a city on this land was cursed from the start. Maybe the more attractive walkways and piers called for by the billion-dollar waterfront revitalization plan will help to un-devastate the lives of the people in the neighborhood, but that's harder to imagine.
Since at least the 1980s, when sculptor Cris Bruch rigged a grocery cart with equipment for cooking meals and pushed it around the neighborhood, artists have cared about Pioneer Square. Last year, the artist Tariqa Waters put up a series of sculptures that were quickly and anonymously torn up so that they more closely resembled the chaos and disrepair of the place. Rather than becoming incensed, Waters admitted the vandalism as commentary and created a new installation accordingly.
JD Banke lives in Pioneer Square. He's 26. He grew up in the northeast suburbs of Seattle and went to private art school at Cornish College of the Arts, but he studied graphic design because his parents warned him it was the only way to make a living. He hated it, so he moved to remote Alaska for a year to work in construction and save up money. (Like caring about Pioneer Square, stints laboring in Alaska are a trope of Seattle art.)
When Banke returned to Cornish, he switched to fine art. He didn't finish the degree, but the school didn't seem to notice. Cornish invited him to do a solo show in the alumni gallery in 2014, a year after he left. In 2013, he'd had three other solos at small venues Prole Drift, Vignettes, and SPACE. This month, he's showing about a dozen paintings and installations at Glass Box.
He paints on thick slabs of wood, and using what he learned in graphic design, employs a limited palette of white, black, gray, and bright green. Messy shapes are marked with emoticons, symbols, and scrawled words. Banke's art is easy to love and to hate. He has a hip and cynical style that can grate, and worse: He's flirting with being fashionable about terrible things like economic violence. But the art does have an emotional center, of barely repressed sorrow and rage. It's also funny, even silly—hopeful.
It's silly to spray-paint your titles on the walls next to your paintings in big letters. The words "Serial Chiller," in black, apply to an almost entirely white painting. A figure stands near a door with an exit sign, looking like he's exited into a blinding snowstorm, and he's all covered up, hood up, boots on, faceless in profile. He doesn't seem chill, he seems blankly alone, and he's turned toward the door, not away from it, like maybe he wants to go back in and rejoin the warm world. (Did the door lock behind him?)
Banke's street portrait of Pioneer Square depicts of a row of buildings he passes every day. The buildings are boxes marked in dumb capital letters: "BANK," "PAWN," "VIP CLUB," "FLAMINGO MOTEL HRLY R8S," and "MURDER MART OPEN 24 HOURS." Banke faithfully reproduces the actual graffiti. Out in front of the VIP Club and the pawnshop, Banke has set a caricature of a balding businessman under a hail of bright-green dollar bills. His white limousine is parked in front of a no-parking sign, and the only other person in the painting is that faceless hooded "chiller," shooting an arc of pee the same green as the dollar bills onto the roof of a cop car. The painting is a joke and a dirge at the same time. Another one, with the words "RIP MY VIBE" on a life-size tombstone, at first looks flat and crisply rendered in black with white words. But the surface of the painting has been worked over so much that a great deal of texture has built up. It looks like there's a terrible storm brewing on the tomb.
Banke calls his show Peasant Dreams, sarcastically. In a painting depicting Seattle's center of commerce, there's another row of sorry buildings, including Niketown, the Cheesecake Factory, and A Sharper Image selling "BATTERY OPERATED BATTERY CHARGER." Banke's art is operating in a system where the charge has run out. He might say that if you don't like the way it looks, look around—he's just recording what he sees. Meanwhile, he's trying to keep his spirits up.
A few blocks farther north at Suyama Space in Belltown, there's another show with a similar snarl, and a similar feeling of exhaustion, that nonetheless looks very different from Banke's. Where his work is stripped to maximum visual simplicity, this is a riotous field of trash trying to rise up onto its feet to party.
California-based artist Elisabeth Higgins O'Connor cut up heaps of old bedsheets and glued the flowers and stripes from them onto watercolor paper. She drywall-screwed the pieces together into huge topiaries shaped like cute animals—a 12-foot rabbit, say. But these animals are disturbed, wounded, diseased. They have prosthetic legs made of furniture parts and lean like downtown drunks on couches stripped to the springs. Piles of leftover pieces accumulate on the floor.
You feel a little sorry for the animals, spilling their guts out like that, but they also look terrible and dangerous. Higgins O'Connor uses the soft materials of home the way Banke uses the street: for raising something like a zombie Irish funeral.