I’m a stranger here I’m a stranger everywhere I would go home But I’m a stranger there.
I’d rather drink muddy water I’d rather sleep on a hollow log Than to stay here in this city Being treated like a dirty dog.
That’s why I got up this mornin’ And I put on my walkin’ shoes I’m goin’ down the road, down the road Cause I got them walkin’ blues
One of the newest works in the Seattle Art Museum collection is Whitfield Lovell’s Stranger Here. Lovell’s piece was inspired by a police mugshot, circa 1910s, depicting a sharp-dressed man of color, and its title comes from an old blues song, whose lyrics we share above. Stranger Here pays homage to a man whose story has been forgotten but whose image remains.
This three-dimensional portrait uses charcoal on found wood, fringe fabric, and an antique lantern to evoke the spirit of the time when the sitter’s picture was taken. The fringe, draped around the man’s bowler hat like drawn curtains, gives the piece a theatrical presence and also creates a sense that something significant is being revealed. In the theater, it’s a dramatic, expectant moment when the curtain is finally drawn and some anticipated spectacle unveils itself. Here, the curtain frames the image and encourages us to pay notice to what we find behind it.
The idea of anonymity, and being disconnected from one another, is especially important to Lovell’s work. Does it bother us that we don’t know the man? That we are denied his story? That we don’t understand all of what we are seeing or truly grasp its significance? In case we might have passed by, missing this quiet figure softly modeled in charcoal, the artist gives us a lantern by which to see.
One floor above Lovell’s piece, in our special exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, hangs another stranger’s portrait inspired by a mugshot. Kehinde Wiley’s Mugshot Study from 2006 pictures a young person of color, his anonymity emphasized by the case number printed below his image. In life, these two men were separated by a century, but here at SAM they share more similarities than differences: both gaze out of their frame resolutely, meeting the viewer’s eye, embodying strength, yet expressing a sad tiredness from their life’s walk.
As one of the most beloved collection works currently hanging at Seattle Art Museum, we weren’t surprised when SAM’s former Deputy Director of Education and Public Programs and current Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, chose Mickalene Thomas’ Hair Portrait #20 to be the subject of her My Favorite Things video.
When i walk in here I see reflections of people who look like me, but i also see a major contribution to the art-historical cannon.
Noting the exclusion of black women from portraiture in western art, Thomas turns her subject into a dazzling, glamorous icon. The work packs a walloping visual punch, spanning 300 inches wide with each face tiled in a different hue, moving from light to dark, from visibility to near invisibility, the Warholian repetition of a single image is given entirely new meaning.
The goal is for museums across the country to share information about women artists—their histories, birthdays, quotes, and more—using the hashtag #5womenartists to highlight works in their collections and exhibitions made by women.
The impetus for the project? According to the campaign’s press release:
“Through #5womenartists, the Women’s Museum hopes to help the public answer the question—without hesitation—‘Can you name five women artists?’” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “By calling attention to the inequity women artists face today as well as in the past, we hope to inspire conversation and awareness.”
We all know the artists that most people are able to list off automatically, right? The list usually goes a little something like…Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, etc. And they are all fantastic women artists worthy of such recognition! But there’s so many more out there. Our goal at SAM is to share a wider range of women that may not be as well known, including women of color and more contemporary artists, all from our collection.
We’re going to share more than five women artists here, and here is the first: a collaboration by artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven (under the group moniker DAFT KUNTZ) called SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN. The piece tends to speak for itself in terms of why we’re highlighting it first, and it was a comment made by a male colleague to the artists. How you choose to view it—as a compliment, or as a statement highlighting the fact that the art world still defines most achievements as defined by men—is up to you. But we love the work because it confronts the fact that there is a significant gender imbalance in the art world, (their representation, and exposure to them and their works) head-on.
“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” –Ai Weiwei1
“At different times I’ve worked in different mediums. For me, the variation is not an artistic judgment, but a necessary choice. It’s just as normal to eat with chopsticks, as it is to eat with forks or hands. Different circumstances call for different tools. I try to express ideas with the most appropriate available materials and forms.” –Ai Weiwei2
“Making choices is how the artist comes to understand himself. These choices are correlated to one’s spiritual predicament, and the goal is a return to the self, the pursuit of spiritual values, and the summoning of spirits. These choices are inherently philosophical.” –Ai Weiwei3
Ai Weiwei is super active in the world of contemporary art, posting to his Instagram, posing as a drowned Syrian refugee, decorating Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets. Not all of the commentary about him is positive, and I’m sure that’s as he would like it. He’s stated in the past that he desires uneasiness; that he deliberately moves away from the self-indulgent comfort of creating things to use his skills or to get praise. He wants to think critically and to act on his convictions. He wants to unsettle and to motivate. Definitely from his own perspective, he is a conceptual artist, a political activist, and an advocate for self-discovery.
Ai’s art still depends—in a really essential way—on its visual impact. The striking visuals he’s able to concoct are the rhetoric he uses to promote his provocative agenda. He may not think of art as a “highly aesthetic practice,” but the work speaks for itself. Just think of his Sunflower Seeds. The work is less than compelling as a printed phrase: “One hundred million hand-sculpted, hand-painted porcelain beads, made to look like sunflower seeds.” As a realized artwork, it captivated people.
Ai thinks about the forms as a means to an end—his end is pointing others to self-consciousness, sparking in us a challenge to accepted systems of belief, provoking critical responses and inspiring action—but they’re still necessary means. They are his way of communicating. He can’t even be sure that his art will communicate what he wants it to do. All he can be sure of is that viewers will experience the physical artwork. Many of us who look at his works will come away with different conclusions; such is the open-endedness of art, politically-driven or otherwise. All we have is the thing, so I say, let’s look closely at it.
SAM’s one work by Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, is on view at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It delivers what it promises. Nine ceramic vases are arranged in a pattern much like a bowling pin setup—there are three rows, with four vases in the back row, three in the middle row, and two in the front row—only the headpin is missing. The artist has applied a base coat of industrial paint in a bold hue—such as yellow, pink, lime green, or plum—to each vase. A second color in high contrast to the base layer covers the lips and shoulder of the vase, then drips down the body. Some vases have long drips like the tendrils of a plant, while others are shorter, like polychrome stalactites. The paint drips are irregular, and they seem natural.
Contrast is especially important to this work: there’s contrast between the traditional form of the ceramic vases and the bright and contemporary paint colors applied to them; contrast between the two colors on one vase, and contrast in the range of colors among the whole group; contrast between the normally grainy texture of a ceramic pot and the flatness of industrial paint. There’s probably contrast, too, between what Ai Weiwei thought of and what you take away.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
“Reconsidering Reality: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” In Ai Weiwei: According to What? Edited by Deborah E. Horowitz. Prestel Verlag: Munich, London and New York, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5-July 28, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, August 31-October 27, 2013; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, Florida, November 28, 2013-March 16, 2014; and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, April 18-August 10, 2014.
“Making Choices.” Translated by Philip Tinari, from The Grey Book, November, 1997. Reproduced in Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press: New York, 2009.
i. According to What, 38
ii. According to What, 39
iii. Ai Weiwei, “Making Choices,” 128
Image:Colored Vases, 2010, Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), ceramic with industrial paint, approx. 17 x 22 in. each. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.33, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.
Giving tours to young people through our big Jane Lang Davis Gallery in the Modern and Contemporary collection can be difficult. It’s impossible to avoid the fact that there’s a really large painting of a naked woman on the wall! Even if, as the tour guide, one forgets about it momentarily, kids will always bring the attention straight to that piece. Their stifled laughter, or even outright laughter, will probably derail conversation about anything else happening in the gallery. Once my focus is drawn to it, I feel simultaneously uncomfortable and totally compelled by the image. I get why they’re staring and pointing.
There’s a name for the painting with the naked woman: Salad Days. She’s just one half of a two-panel piece that measures seven by fourteen feet, rendering relational discord on a huge scale. The artist is contemporary American painter Eric Fischl. He has been creating uncomfortably naked paintings since the early 1980s, and there are few artists out there who do it better, or with more unsettling creep factor.
Fischl has described himself as a storyteller, an artist who aims to create scenes that are full of meaning. Whether that meaning is positive or negative does not matter to him; whether the viewer’s senses are offended does not matter either. Instead, he’s interested in radical openness and honesty. Many of Fischl’s paintings focus on awkward territory: enduring down time in an unhappy relationship, singing in the shower, or lounging unceremoniously in the buff. Over and over, he confronts viewers with scenes that are unusual for their bare honesty.
Of course there’s a very long history of naked people in art, and Fischl is hardly the first, last, or only artist to engage the subject. Most of these artists are working in one of two traditions: nude art, or naked art. The nude is an idealized figure, on display for the viewer, situated in a context that justifies, or makes more art history appropriate, the lack of clothes. Nakedness is all about the lack of clothes and flying in the face of propriety. Fischl fits squarely in the naked camp.
SAM’s collection has great examples of the nude genre too…
Salad Days pictures a private moment, and in doing so, turns it into something highly public. The woman’s physical nakedness comes to represent a psychological nakedness, where her private thoughts and actions come to the surface. This, like much of Fischl’s work, is a voyeuristic, intimate vignette—not an idealized display set up for our consumption. Imagining two sides of a conversation happening over the phone, he invites us to imagine how others act when we can’t see them. You’ll be thinking about it the next time you’re on a call…
Beauty is often associated with symmetry; Order, even lines, and pleasing color palettes are all indicative qualities of something that aims to catch the eye. The earliest Western theory of beauty can be found in the works of Greek philosophers from the pre-Socratic period, such as Pythagoras. The Pythagorean school saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty. Notably, they believed that objects proportioned to meet the golden ratio (two objects are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities) were more attractive. Many greats including Da Vinci and Dali have incorporated the number in their works. Artist Yee Sookyung—currently showing work in the exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art at the Asian Art Museum—does not.
Rather than create pieces that follow this long-held belief, she takes existing pieces of art as well as broken shards, bits, and pieces of work made by traditional Korean master ceramicists (what she calls “ceramic trash”) and turns them into gold—literally.
“My concern is not about the history of Korean ceramics, but it is to play with the fragments which exist now, and this is different from the ceramics masters who produce all of the ceramics adhering to traditional methodology,” Yee said. “Korean traditional ceramic masters break almost 70% of the product that don’t reach up to the standards of masterpieces. So I put the broken bits and pieces of ceramic trash together, one by one, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I covered them with 24k gold leaf, and I wanted to emphasize the crack. In Korean, the word for crack is also the same for gold.”
She describes the process of the pieces coming together in a rather romantic, predetermined way:
“A broken ceramic piece finds another piece, and they rely on each other,” Yee said.
The result is ultimately sculptural, anthropomorphic, and universally beautiful.
Watch the artist describe this process, the act of combining histories, and the many layered metaphors buried in her large-scale work. Experience Thousand and all of its perfect imperfections in Paradox of Place at the Asian Art Museum.
As we welcome 2016, SAM nears its 83rd anniversary as an institution. It’s an organization with a rich and, at points, dramatic history. From its early years SAM has also shown a commitment to being part of history as it develops—not becoming a place where we all gawk at history as it gathers dust.
Our founding director, Dr. Richard Fuller, set up a regular exhibition program for living Northwest artists. Much of the gallery space at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park was, in the museum’s formative years, a site for rotating displays of contemporary work. Often Dr. Fuller would purchase a painting from a show on behalf of the museum, using money from his own pocket, but representing the museum, and later very informally accessioned it into the permanent collection. For the artists he deemed worthy, he provided complementary display space and buying power via SAM. In addition to his role as an important patron to Northwest artists—notably Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Kenneth Callahan—Dr. Fuller also worked out agreements with some artists to support them through living stipends. He employed some of them, like Callahan, to help him at the museum with installing, packing, and shipping art, or promoting shows in the local papers.
In the photo above, a smiling, sweeping Callahan oozes appreciation—and he should! While employed by SAM, and with the financial and emotional support of Dr. Fuller, he produced powerful work like First Seed into the Last Harvest (1943), a favorite of mine in Pacific Northwest Modernism.
Our current director, Kim Rorschach, continues to encourage SAM’s engagement with contemporary art. One acquisition representative of her time at the helm is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s Trapsprung (2013), a remarkable oil painting that’s currently hanging in the Brotman Forum near our admissions desk. In the picture, a life-size ballerina emerges from a flat background, full of dynamism and grace in her movement.
Born in 1977, Yiadom-Boakye is a British artist of Ghanaian descent. In her work, Yiadom-Boakye is interested in making interventions in history and reality. Her work features human figures and can be called representational in that sense. The figures are almost always people of color, and they are always posed actively, portraying self-confidence, and not passive presences. They’re figures, but they’re not exactly portraits: Yiadom-Boakye works using her imagination rather than representing specific individuals from life studies or photos.
What makes her work especially compelling is her desire to insert people of color into monumental paintings (and the sometimes exclusive stories that have traditionally played out there), such as her ballerina in Trapsprung. She’s writing a new history, an inclusive one, and it’s freshly assertive, exciting, and imaginative.
Here’s to all that we know 2016 holds—including a blockbuster show for another artist interested in new histories, Kehinde Wiley—and to what we have yet to discover!
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Images: Trapsprung, 2013, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, British, b. 1977, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 70 7/8 in., Seattle Art Museum, General Acquisition Fund. Seattle Art Museum Archives. First Seed into Last Harvest, 1943, Kenneth Callahan, American, b. 1905, tempera on canvas, 14 1/2 x 18 1/4 in., Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.
We have a unique opportunity to help contemporary Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei create commissioned artworks that will be a part of an Australian exhibition starting this month. How can we help him, you might be thinking? By sharing our LEGOs!
The Danish toy company LEGO refused Ai Weiwei Studio’s request for a bulk order of LEGOs to create artwork to be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria as “they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This triggered a flood of responses on social media criticizing LEGO for “censorship and discrimination” by refusing Ai’s order. Since then, thousands of anonymous supporters have offered to donate their used LEGOs to Ai.
The tiny toy bricks Ai receives will be part of two works for an exhibition titled Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei, which will explore the concept of freedom of speech and be on view through April 24, 2016 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. According to The New York Times, one piece will re-envision his 1995 photo triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” and the other will feature 20 LEGO portraits of Australian proponents of Internet freedom and human rights.
To participate in this site-specific project and show our support, the Seattle Art Museum has signed up as an official Lego collection point for local and visiting art enthusiasts to drop LEGO bricks through the sunroofs of a secondhand BMW. Our collection point is parked right in front of the Asian Art Museum, and the roof will be open during museum open hours now through January 10, 2016.
Want to check out some of Weiwei’s work in person? Visit his installation Colored Vases, Ai’s first work acquired by the SAM, at the Asian Art Museum.
Upon arrival, we are greeted by cardboard boxes, carts piled high with paint, painter’s tape, dozens and dozens of lights, and AV equipment. It’s the week before the Asian Art Museum’s newest exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art opens, and we’re going behind the scenes to check out how the installation is going.
SAM’s Exhibition Designer, Paul Martinez, was on hand to walk us through the exhibition install team’s progress thus far.
“The crew has their work cut out for them!” he tells us with a smile.
“Right now we’re looking at the tech specs for all of the artists—the things that the A/V people will need. Tantamount is clear communication, as we’re working with an international museum and artists,” Martinez says.
As we walk into the first wing of the Tateuchi Galleries, we see deep, crimson walls that are still bare for the most part, save for two gilded frames holding mirrors. The room will house works by artist Lee Yongbaek. The pieces incorporate video, sound, mirrors, and soldier uniforms decked out in floral print as a part of his work, Angel-Soldier. After viewing images of the uniforms, the myriad colors pop out and are so much more vivid in person. They are the perfect juxtaposition: camouflage that does not hide you at all.
“You can see them laid out here,” Martinez says as we walk into the adjoining room. “They’re stunning decorative elements, you want to wear one of the jackets, they’re pretty cool.” We agree completely.
We move on to the next, where we see a few of Jung Yeondoo’s pairs of photos from his Bewitched series have been hung. They portray young people of Korea in their day jobs and contrast their realities with what they would actually like to do in life, if money, education, and responsibilities were of no object. The photos are huge, taking up the majority of the wall space. We didn’t imagine they’d tower so high, but seeing them blown up to almost life-size helps us take in the details—to imagine what life would be like in our imagined realities, too.
The next space houses Lim Minouk’s large-scale multimedia installation, The Possibility of the Half. The work is not fully prepared or installed yet, and Lim’s assistant, Ms. Park Moonkynung is in town to help assemble the pieces. The detritus of what makes up a real newsroom is scattered around the room: an ON AIR sign, professional video cameras and tripods, and more lights, all borrowed from our local KING5 news station. The room is painted black, which will perfectly set the scene for what viewers will experience when the total sum of the work is up: a re-imagined Korean television studio, with screens showing visceral, emotional, and dramatic scenes of people grieving over the deaths of Kim Jong Il of North Korea and former president Park Jung-Hee of South Korea.
Standing tall in front of us is an interesting structure: a camera device composed mostly of a tall tree branch. Curious as to how it got here, we pressed Martinez.
“This request came to us in a single photo. ‘Can you build us one of these?’ he said. “It’s just what it looks like: a quirky representation of a camera boom. Our crew worked hard to produce an operable and dynamic boom to represent exactly what we needed,” Martinez said, as he moved the boom up and down, and left to right to show of its capabilities. “We went out and selected a tree from the Northwest, cut it to size, dried it for a long period of time, then fumigated. We started this back in the springtime. Then it needed the whole base, which we built in house, and our mount makers fabricated everything.”
“So this is one of a kind, and made for this exhibition?” I ask. “Yes, she’s (Lim) done it for other museums, too,” Martinez confirms. “The bottom rounds, not sure where they were purchased from, and not sure if they’re from the Pacific Northwest,” he laughs.
Lim herself is at the museum this week to help install her work. We can’t wait to see what the composite room looks once it’s up and finished for the opening this weekend.
I noticed that when everything is laid out in the room, including pieces that expand up entire corners of the floor, it seems that the work takes a great deal of space. “How are people going to interact with the installation and how close are they going to get to everything?” I ask.
“Much like The Mr. exhibition, (referring to the past exhibition, Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop), it’s a bit of an immersive experience,” Martinez said. “This exhibition will be the same way. They’ll wander through, but there will be obvious barriers. It’s meant to be something you enter, have an experience with while you’re in it, and then you leave.”
In the next room over, we’re greeted by some of Yang Haegue’s Female Natives sculptures. Outfitted with everyday materials—lights, artificial flowers, yarn, cord, bells, etc. piled on clothing racks—the structures provoke narratives about gender, politics, and human emotions. Her Gymnastics of the Foldables series of photos yields the same effect by way of engaging a clothes drying rack in calisthenics.
The last wing of the galleries is dedicated to the installation that has been worked on the least since the pieces arrived in Seattle. Tons of wooden boxes were piled on top of each other to our left and right, with Korean postage and stickers prominently affixed.
“I heard the handlers were taking apart and counting them, making sure they were all here today,” I said, referring to Yeesookyung’s work Thousand, composed of porcelain shards, epoxy, and 24k gold leaf.
“This one is particularly challenging,” Martinez said. “It’s a thousand pieces to look at,” he said. “How they come out of the crate remains specific as to how they’re laid out for the artist to access, it’s a very deliberate, meticulous unpacking and repacking and reassembly of the crates,” he confirmed. “And then of course the registrars are looking at each piece in detail, writing down the characteristics of each piece, and photographing them so they have a record of what they are and if they have any issues.”
The effort will pay off, though, as the total effect of one thousand pieces of porcelain on a platform is bound to dazzle—not only for the craftsmanship of the ceramics, but also out of respect for the artist who has skillfully arranged them all in their respective spots in the gallery.
“The artist will place them all herself, correct?”
“Exactly,” Martinez said. “We have the pedestal placed as she’ll need. She’ll place them all in the ways she likes on the platform. She’ll have all the pieces arranged by numbers. She’s installed it before so she’ll come with her method of reinstalling it here.”
I’ve read that Yeesookyung has said that working on this piece has helped her appreciate the process of putting together her finished works more than the actual creating of the work. Some interesting perspective on a work that no doubt took at least a thousand hours to complete.