Construction cranes hover above; tents huddle in low, semi-informal encampments in and around. Contemporary Seattle is a place of great ambition and building, but it’s also a city of precariousness, of economic and ecological uncertainty. In the midst of these disparities, DWELL, the current exhibition at Seattle’s G. Gibson Gallery, offers a look at how 12 artists are thinking about ideas of home. I consider, here, a sampling.
Linda Connor’s archival pigment print, Doors and Window…after Charles Sheeler, greets you as you enter the gallery, ushering you in with its open doors and sparse rooms. American artist Charles Sheeler often photographed the 18th-century Pennsylvania farmhouse where he lived in the 1910s and ’20s, and Connor’s photograph, like Sheeler’s works before it, plays with light and shadow, solids and voids, and horizontals, verticals and diagonals. Cable Griffith’s Mountain Stream, at the other end of DWELL, previews the dramatic landscapes you’ll see as soon as you step back outside the gallery and ascend to higher ground. The painting seems to bid you adieu and conduct you outward. These two bookending pieces measure the scope of the exhibition, which oscillates between interiors and exteriors, between psychologically charged spaces of living and magnificent natural settings where we choose to site houses.
In between are drawings, a large installation, and other photographs and paintings. Some show us the architecture of what could be. In Gala Bent’s long and narrow Utopian Renovation, hollow wooden forms pull apart from the force of an explosion happening in the middle of the piece. The scene looks chaotic, but Bent’s title suggests that it’s really just a building being made better and anew. (And what of that crystal and furry creature in the fray?) If you look closely at her piece, you can see erased graphite on the left, traces of the artist’s own editing and process of revision.
Across the room, the Japanese greenhouse in Michael Kenna’s black-and-white photograph, Greenhouse Structure, Study 2, Biei, Hokkaido, Japan, seems to float between soft, milky expanses of ground and sky. Like Bent’s building, the structure looks like a work in progress. It recalls Joseph Paxton’s modular Crystal Palace from the 19th century, a giant stretch of cast iron and glass.
And right in the middle, Susanna Bluhm’s Big Teepee in the Snow (Pretend), a large, luscious painting thick with oil and acrylic impasto, evokes childhood dreams of making a little sanctuary outside. How magical it would be to build a teepee and huddle in its darkness beneath the muffled fall of snow, though your adult self knows better about the wrongs of cultural appropriation. Each piece is aspirational, a vision of what materials might make, however improbable.
Other artists present architecture as what has, or soon will, come undone. Lori Nix’s Living Room and Julie Blackmon’s Patio, both photographs, are dense with objects and clues of domestic demise. Nix’s interior space shows disarray and disrepair, while Blackmon’s outdoor scene flirts with fiery catastrophe.
Nearby, Samantha Scherer’s tiny, detailed drawings show fragments of cars and homes displaced by natural disaster (see the image at the beginning of this post). Kathryn Schulz’s article “The Really Big One” in the New Yorker this week jolted many of us awake to the devastation that an earthquake and tsunami could wreak upon the Pacific Northwest. This is not to say there’s nothing to be done, but much work is needed to prepare our region for such an event. As Schulz asks, “How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?” Scherer’s exquisite drawings suggest what such a calamity could bring if we fail to act.
Thuy-Van Vu’s Untitled (North Seattle) isn’t part of the assembly of works that converse with each other across the walls of the gallery’s large room between Connor’s photograph and Griffith’s painting. Instead, Vu’s painting faces out toward the street alongside another Susanna Bluhm piece. Her Seattle apartment building looks like it is at once becoming and unbecoming. Its mottled pink walls are held in place with an irregular network of long wood pieces, as though they would fall to the ground without the improvised buttressing. Perhaps the building’s funding ran dry, leaving it someone’s abandoned ambition.
Vu’s building reminds me of a structure I knew as a child. In the West Virginia woods, near the farmhouse my uncles bought, are the foundations of an unfinished house. The place has an affecting melancholy, and each time we visited, I walked up to see it, observing how its gradual decline mirrored the slow progress with which its would-be resident had begun to assemble it before he died suddenly. My uncles acquired his land, but they had known the man personally, and they couldn’t bear to actively tear down the dream he had begun to realize.
Our aspirations for what home could be like and our fears about domestic dreams dismantled by weather, economic hardship, inattention or just time, these are at the heart of this thoughtful exhibition.
DWELL is on view at the G. Gibson Gallery in Pioneer Square through Saturday, August 15, 2015.