Hear Derrick Adams discuss his artworks included in SAM’s exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958 and features contemporary art, all of which work together to question the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history.
Derrick Adams’s (b. 1970) multidisciplinary practice probes the influence of popular culture on self-image, and the relationship between man and monument. Adams is deeply immersed in questions of how African American experiences intersect with art history, American iconography, and consumerism. He describes his two works in The American Struggle—Saints March and Jacob’s Ladder—as a way to “contribute to conversations that expand on histories that are both Black American and American overall.” Saints March is a video considering the original American dance form of tap and contemporary street tap performance, while Jacob’s Ladder brings Lawrence’s personal archives into the gallery through a sculptural installation that lends optimism to the concept of struggle.
Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.
Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!
Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?
Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.
As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world.
I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.
My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.
Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.
In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.
CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?
BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.
CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?
BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world. I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.
CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?
BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment.
CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?
BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras. The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.
Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.
In honor of Women’s
History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women
artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.
“My antennas were also meant to be ‘feelers,’ things you stretch out to feel something, like the sound of the world and its many tones.”
– Isa Genzken
Metal antennae extend full-length from a series of seven objects
resembling vintage shortwave radios. Heads tilt and ears pique while viewing Isa
literally as “world receivers”—expecting the cast concrete to make audible the
signals they’ve received from unknown sources. Although silent, the antennae
appear deliberately and mysteriously tuned at slight angles; they must be
picking up something. Can’t we hear it,
or are we not listening––or looking––hard enough?
Isa Genzken (German, b. 1948) is regarded as one of the most influential contemporary artists of the last 40 years, working in sculpture and a variety of multidisciplinary media. In the late 1970s to early 80s, Genzken gained prominence for her series of floor-based sculptures in the complex and elegant shapes of Ellipsoids and Hyperbolos. Handcrafted in lacquered wood from computer designs created in collaboration with physicist Ralph Krotz, the elongated, colorful sculptures drew from the geometric forms of Minimalism, but offered more nuanced connections to industrial design, digital technology, and commercial production. During this same period in 1982, Genzken exhibited her only stand-alone readymade sculpture, a functional radio receiver entitled Weltempfänger (World Receiver), which solidified her continued interests in consumer culture, value, and material.
By the late 1980s, Genzken departed abruptly from the refined
forms of her ellipsoids to rough-hewn sculptures made of concrete and plaster. She
began an ongoing series, casting concrete weltempfängersof
various sizes and groupings, where the receivers take on symbolic roles of relics
or ruins rather than functional devices, such as the 1982 readymade. The simple
forms are layered with meaning. Together, the radio, a medium of power or
opposition, and concrete, a material of ruin or reconstruction, evoke
connections to a postwar Germany that Genzken experienced firsthand. More
broadly, the receivers ask us to consider how communication is transmitted and
received, and how we decide what is made permanent or temporary.
In this present moment, the receivers
offer a resonance more immediate. Facing a public health crisis that compels us
to connect more and more through technology, and to seek out news and facts in
order to keep our communities safe, these world receivers provide a moment to “stretch
out to feel something,” and to contemplate how we look, listen, and decide what
we value and make permanent for the future.
– Philip Nadasdy, SAM Associate Director of Public Engagement
 Diedrich Diederichsen, “Diedrich Diederichsen in Conversation with Isa Genzken,” in Alex Farquharson et al., Isa Genzken (London: Phaidon, 2006), 25; reprinted in Lisa Lee, ed., Isa Genzken (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 120.
“The real magic of Carpe Fin is in the space between the object and the observer.”
– Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Hear from the artist behind the 6 x 19–foot watercolor mural commissioned for SAM. Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas describes Carpe Fin as “Haida manga.” This unique approach developed by Yahgulanaas blends several artistic and cultural traditions, including Haida formline art, Japanese manga, Pop Art, and graphic novels.
Inspired by a traditional Haida oral story, the story is also linked to a 19th-century headdress in SAM’s collection carved by Yahgulanaas’s relative, Albert Edward Edenshaw. Carpe Fin calls attention to issues of environmental degradation and the rupture of the values that honor human-nature interdependence.
We asked SAM staff to reflect on the work and what stood out to them by answering which panel impacted them most. Have you seen the artwork at SAM or read the book? Read some reflections below and share your thoughts with us in the comments!
The very center panel—it’s more free form so it draws the eye. It’s the moment when Carpe realizes he’s been left behind on the island. His phases of expression and gesture really struck me.
The central panels—frames break down, creative topsy-turvy!
The third panel (upper center) for the transition from the human to the underwater world. The contrast of thick, thin, and detailed brushwork make it come alive.
The middle panels stand out because of the dynamic between the sea lions and humans. There’s a chaotic structure that reminds me of the circle of life, but it also shows an imbalance.
The central panel and how it just seems to come alive and break out of the typical comic book boxes/outlines; the overall image captivates your attention and makes you want to keep looking at the intricate, smaller details.
I was most impacted by the panel in which Carpe swims back wearing sewed-up seal skin. There is something about embodying the animal that he had been killing. I wonder how much the message of “you’re killing our women” would have sunk in without this physical experience or if he would have heard it in a different way?
I’m most impacted by the panel where the young boys kill a flicker. This senseless, purposeless killing of a living thing in a microcosm of the imbalance and lack of respect for the environment that has created dire circumstances for this community and communities across the globe. The energy that youth are bringing to climate activism lies in contrast to this detail and gives hope for the future. We all need to take responsibility and enact laws and regulations that will ensure the survival of future generations.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the
Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection
throughout the month of March.
From across a gallery, Focus
No. 37 looks like the face of someone seen in passing. The person might
appear vaguely familiar, prompting the viewer to stop and focus. But the face
does not become any clearer after directing attention to the image, or moving
closer. Instead, it is the white threads that wind across the surface of the
portrait to form a neat braid that become more visible. The threads further
obscure an already out-of-focus photograph, making the individual’s age and
gender seem ambiguous.
This work is part of the Focus
series by artist Lin Tianmiao, who created multiple portraits of herself,
family members, and friends modified by her thread-winding technique. Her
artistic practice often involves materials associated with domestic labor and
the Chinese household during the 1960s and 70s. Reflecting on her personal
association with white cotton thread, Lin recalls the childhood chore of
unwinding old uniforms and gloves provided by state-owned “work units,” or danwei, and rewinding them into sweaters,
tablecloths, hats, and curtains for family use or to exchange with relatives
Speaking about the connection between her choice of materials and her own memories, Lin remarks, “When I look back at the materials I chose over the years and think about why I chose thread and other soft materials, I think it has to do with my personal experience. When I was a child, my [mom] sometimes asked me to help her with housework. It was actually like a form of corporal punishment in that it stamped a physical memory on me. When I came back [to China] from America and saw those kinds of materials again, I thought to myself: this is it, these are going to be my materials. It happened very naturally. Also, since I did a lot of housework when I was a child, it helped me acquire endurance and tenacity.” 2
While the thread in Focus
No. 37 does produce the effect of obscuring the photograph beneath, the
central braid humanizes an anonymous face by bringing to mind a familiar haptic
act. Just as Lin Tianmiao describes her memories of housework, the viewer might
think about their experiences braiding someone’s hair, having their own hair
braided, or someone they know with braided hair. In this way, the work raises
the question of how identity is formed. Individuals are not only defined by
their outward appearance, but also by their everyday actions and practices.
Meschac Gaba takes much inspiration from the streets of Cotonou, Benin,
the city where he was born. The artist, full of clarity and humor about the
nature of his work, understands the power of art in social environments.
After finding millions (Gaba’s estimate) of cut banknotes on the street,
the artist started incorporating money into his work. This was the early 1990s,
when Benin first devalued currency, and Gaba was fascinated.
In Artist with African Inspiration: Salle de Francophonie (2004),
Gaba prints new images on a West African 1000 CFA franc. On the back of the
original bill, a chalkboard appears on the lower right side with the letters
“abc” in cursive. However, Gaba replaces the letters and uses the chalkboard to
frame his own face—smiling. On the left side of the bill appears an image of
one of the artist’s braided hair sculptures as well. It’s a small revision, and
Gaba employs the same intervention with an American dollar bill in Artist
with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center, swapping out our
stately eagle for his face (again, smiling). One of Gaba’s sculptures appears
on the left as well. These could be read as ironic: an act of empowerment or a
moment of tongue-in-cheek capitalist self-promotion.
However you might interpret his actions, Gaba
uses everyday objects to continually play with questions of global trade and
economy, and call attention to the modern conditions that drive us to
constantly earn, measure, and compete against one another. Through his artistic
practice, he questions who can be an artist, and how artists can create space.
– Jenae Williams, Exhibitions and Publications Associate
identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier
of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course,
the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two
clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of
the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.
a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our
interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest
in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a
time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his
characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both
time and photography in one fell swoop.
Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.
– Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate
It wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that we live in a
youth-obsessed culture. If we only take a moment to look around, we can see it
everywhere. It pops up in advertisements, in movies, and in TV. It works its
way into our minds with anti-ageing skin creams and anti-graying hair dyes. It
settles into our society and fills us with the irrefutable fear of getting older.
To be young—or so our culture seems to suggest—is to be wild, uninhibited, and
free. And, conversely, to be old is to be slow, sidelined, and ignored.
While this is never fully true in reality, it is difficult
to deny that, in our current society, old age is a thing that many people fear.
Some might argue that this is even more prevalent for women, who are judged
more frequently on their looks than men and who, as such, feel more pressure to
maintain a youthful appearance. How many times have you heard a woman complain
about “getting old”? It is because women have so much more to lose when they
lose their youth.
In her series My Grandmothers, however, photographer
Miwa Yanagi presents a fascinating and poignant counterargument to our societal
fear of aging.
For My Grandmothers, Yanagi interviewed a variety of
women between the ages of fourteen and twenty, asking them to describe what
they thought their lives would look like in fifty years. She then staged photos
to capture these descriptions. The photo above is titled Yuka, named for
a woman who imagined herself living on in the U.S. with her younger, playboy
lover. Yuka, with bright red hair and a cigarette, riding down the Golden Gate
Bridge in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hardly fits our stereotypical idea of an
old woman. She is laughing with abandon, unashamed and unconstrained.
With Yuka, as with the other portraits in the series, Yanagi explores the idea that old age is liberating rather than limiting. Women, no longer defined by their beauty and (as one critic noted) by their reproductive abilities, are free to live for themselves, on their own terms, by their own rules. According to Yanagi, young women today are restricted by society’s expectations and are unable to express their true desires for the lives that they want to live. When they are freed from their youth, they are freed from those confines. Old age, it seems, is not so much our great nightmare as it is our ticket to a more liberating life.
In This Imperfect Present Moment closes Sunday, June 16! Don’t miss this chance to see works across a wide array of media by artists hailing from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cotonou/Rotterdam, Luanda/Lisbon, Baltimore, to Los Angeles, and New York. These works have been brought to Seattle by local collectors who are intrigued by how these artists convey vibrant narratives that resonate across global boundaries. While you’re here take a close look at Surah al-Fatiha (the Opening), by Capetown artist Igshaan Adams.
Visiting Igshaan Adams in his studio in Capetown is to step into a zone
of transformation. He works with a group of weavers who wander in and out as he
shows you mounds of materials that are being upgraded to carry stories and
interpretations of Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam, which offers alternative
ways of looking at the world. He speaks of his love of the mysticism of Islamic
texts, and how they provide guidance for the realities of daily life. Learning
about his family provides further insight for his development as an artist; he
was raised by Christian grandparents who were supportive of his faith, fasted
with him during Ramadan, and invited imams over to the family home. As you trip
over ropes and nearly stumble into a massive maze of beads that are being
arranged in a spiral with a mystic rationale, you try to keep track of the mesmerizing
pull of the artist’s sincerity. His descriptions of involving the sacred to
encourage humankind’s capacity for good and nobility set a tone of deep introspection.
In the instsallation, you’ll see a tapestry named after the first chapter of the Quran. Adams has added beads to convey the opening line, which is meant to be recited and contemplated every time a believer begins to establish a direct connection with Allah. About this, Adams has said, “As an artist, I think I can give a person one moment of reflection or one moment with a different perspective.” So goes this imperfect present description of his effort, which is worth so many more words that you are encouraged to seek out online.
– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art
Image: Surah al-Fatiha (the Opening), 2016, Igshaan Adams, South African, b. 1982, woven nylon rope, beads, 94 1/2 x 94 1/2 in., Private collection, photo courtesy of Blank Projects, Cape Town.
Stimson Bullitt Library is featuring a display of three new
acquisitions from its Book
Arts Collection. These artists’ books share a common interest in
documents and other historical records—each, in its own way, addresses the
notion of archives.
by Tammy Nguyen (American, born 1984)—A Surreal Archive: The Young-Mallin
Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2018)—announces its connection
to an archive in its title. This work was commissioned in an edition of 250 by
the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library to commemorate the collector Judith
Young-Mallin (American, born 1937) and her gift of the Young-Mallin Surrealist
Archive to the museum. The archive contains a wealth of materials and books
related to the original surrealist artists and those influenced by their work,
including Young-Mallin’s personal library, research files, interviews,
correspondence, photographs, and ephemera. Nguyen has constructed a book that
includes pop-up elements, along with hidden panels and envelopes. As Timothy
Rub says in the accompanying book’s foreword, Nguyen’s work “playfully mirrors
Young-Mallin’s spirit as a collector.”
items from the archive are incorporated into the book:
Tanning’s Lanova: Design for Ballachine Ballet “The Night Shadow”
(1945); Paul Éluard and Max Ernst’s book Misfortunes of the Immortals
(1943); Young-Mallin’s book The Night the Lobster Telephone Rang (2011);
Richard Avedon’s photograph Carol Janeway with Bronze Sculpture by Ossip
Zadkine (no date); Carol Janeway’s pen and ink drawing For My Valentine
(ca. 1940s); a matchbook advertisement for the exhibition Marcel
Duchamp—Addenda (1974); a photograph by an unknown photographer titled
William Copley and Noma Copley on Honeymoon in Egypt (ca. 1954); and images
of The Stein-Toklas Doll House of Judith Young-Mallin (ca. 1970s), a
work that was created in Young-Mallin’s home by various artists, including
Leonora Carrington, Man Ray, Elsa Schiaparelli, and others.
This Is the End (Peter Norton Family Projects, 2017) is an archive of an unusual project undertaken in the name of art. For many in the art world, the most important gift at the holidays was the “Peter Norton Christmas Project.” Each year between 1988 and 2017, software entrepreneur, art collector, and MoMA trustee Peter Norton (American, born 1943) commissioned an art edition to celebrate the holidays. Created by artists in Norton’s collection and sent as gifts to a few thousand personal friends and members of the art community, these art objects were intended to foster engagement with the world of contemporary art. When the project concluded in 2017, Norton created an archive of the series in another edition: This Is the End (with the subtitle Our Closing Project in Three Parts). It includes a 72-page book titled The End, which details each of the thirty releases. The edition also includes a scorpion sculpture excised from the book, a postcard, an electronic video book, and earbuds. The format of this project and its scorpion theme were inspired by the art of Robert The (American, born 1961). The edition is enclosed in a book box that states “The End” on its cover.
Dayanita Singh (Indian, born 1961) continues her series of “book-objects” with Pothi
Box (Spontaneous Books, 2018). Using images from various Indian archives,
this artist’s book holds thirty black-and-white images of paper archives, a
film archive, and a printing press, held together in a wooden structure. This
“unbound book” is meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a table. Similar to
other Singh projects, the structure allows for the collector to play
a curatorial role by changing the cover image as they please. Unlike other
projects that have been contained in constructed boxes, this work is nestled in
a woven textile with needlepoint letters “Pothi Box,” recalling the archival sacks
featured in her photographs. Pothi Box is a smaller version of a larger
structure called Pothi Khana (2018), which was recently displayed at the
57th Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
works will be on view outside of the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library on SAM’s
fifth floor until June 12, 2019. Any questions about our Book Arts Collection
can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Traci Timmons, Senior Librarian
Images: This Is the End, 2017, Santa Monica: Peter Norton,Peter Norton, compiler, American, born 1943, BKARTS N 7433.4 N785 T54 2017.ASurreal Archive: The Young-Mallin Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tammy Nguyen, American, born 1984, BKARTS N 7433.4 N58 S87 2018. Pothi Box, 2018, New Delhi, India: Spontaneous Books, Dayanita Singh ,Indian, born 1961, BKARTS N 7433.4 S557 P78 2018. Photos: Natali Wiseman.
In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo:Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.
The subject of the Crows screens is a murder of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw.
In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:
In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.
– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator
 Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.  Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
“The resulting collection is a riot of color and texture that playfully draws the viewer into a world—the experience of another human being—impossible to ever fully know, but commanding one’s full consideration anyhow.”
Nancy Guppy included Like a Hammer and the community celebration on Thursday in this New Day NW segment highlighting local arts happenings.
Image: CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF OF YOU, 2015, Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians/Cherokee, b. 1972, high fire glazed ceramic, repurposed tipi poles, wool, acrylic paint, wool blanket, glass beads, artificial sinew, copper jingles, and nylon fringe, 72 × 29 × 38 in., Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, image courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California, photo: Peter Mauney.
We are excited about Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer opening in just a few short days and want to make sure you know all the free and discounted ways to see this new, colorful, and exuberant exhibition!
Artist Jeffrey Gibson is of Cherokee heritage and a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He grew up in urban settings in Germany, South Korea, the United States, and England, and his work draws on his experiences in different cultural environments. In his artwork, Gibson creates a new visual language from familiar items associated with Native powwow, such as glass beads, drums, trade blankets, and metal jingles, which are overlaid with markers of queer club culture as well as the legacies of abstract painting. The inspiration and community of dance clubs and pop music reverberate throughout his work.
Mark your calendars with these opportunities to see this visionary contemporary exhibition where powwow meets pop culture meets punching bags.
Also on opening day, Jeffrey Gibson will be in attendance and offering a free talk and screening of new video works. Don’t risk it, reserve a free ticket for Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer and Next Steps at 7 pm on Feb 28!
SAM also offers free and discounted passes to visit our special exhibitions for community organizations or colleges and universities. Find out more and fill out our form to get yours today!
First Thursdays, tickets are to see Like a Hammer are half off and the museum is open late. Swing through on March 7, April 4, or May 2.
First Fridays, seniors get half-off entry to Like a Hammer. If you’re 65+, mark your calendar for March 1, April 5, or May 3.
We’ve also go special deals for teens to pay $5 for a ticket to Like a Hammer through our partner organization TeenTix. Oh, and kids 12 and under are always free!
We also offer free entry to caregivers accompanying a visitor, employees of other museums, gold or flash card holders, and members of the press with ID. Check out our FAQ for more information and other ways to get discounts!
While we’re at it, did you know that it’s always suggested admission to visit SAM’s collection galleries? These are just a few ways SAM connects art to life!
We read each other’s body language all day, every day. In the museum, surrounded by artworks depicting a variety of figures and movements, this instinct can be put to an international test of how well we understand gestures and postures. A walk through the galleries can simulate what it’s like to be in another country, where you don’t know the verbal language and need to navigate based on reading bodies.
In the exhibition In This Imperfect Present Moment, a person’s body is telling you to stop and recognize that their moment has come, and you are a vital participant. They are ready to talk. Which language are they likely to speak? Toyin Ojih Odutola was born in Nigeria, grew up in Alabama, went to art school in San Francisco, and now lives in New York. She’s given many insightful interviews that provide a sense of the conversation you might have with her about her work. For now, here’s just one quote: “I’m attracted to the understated in art: moments that can be quickly passed over, but are complex and layered. There’s nothing wrong with bombast, and the maximalist in aesthetic and presentation, and I often exploit those very qualities. But nothing beats the underwhelming, the quiet, the subtle. When you see the economy of line used so effortlessly—that always gets me, because it isn’t easy.”
– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art
Utopian visionaries are rare these days. If Black Panther moved you to consider what might be possible in the future, there’s an artist who is opening a new portal into the world of possibilities to come and you can see their work at SAM right now as part of In This Imperfect Present Moment. Athi-Patra Ruga introduces characters from a mythical metaverse. You can see what this means in his performances, which are available online. His avatars wear high heels and balloons, ride zebras, walk down dirt roads or city streets, and occasionally swim upside down. He knows how to turn heads and get people to stare at unexpected visions. For this sculpture, he covers a neoclassical bust with beads, flowers, and gems to mock the usual stagnancy of a bronze-cast monument. He has stated that “our statues are an indictment of our poor imagination.” Calling this sculpture The Ever Promised Erection, Ruga says, “The humorous tone of the title points to the fallacy and impotence of the posturing of the nation-state.”
Ruga replaces the failed state with an ideal femme-centric futurist nation called Azania, inspired by rumors of an ideal Africa described in ancient American myths. You can get to know Azania and see their queens and territories by looking at his large-scale tapestries and videos. His tapestry maps record an Ocean of Repentance, where cleansing waters protect and surround islands inhabited by women. It takes a distinctive rigor to create and carry an entire nation in your mind. When meeting Athi-Patra Ruga, you sense him as someone dedicated to keeping his alternative world alive and well. He’s now about to open his first one-person exhibition in London at the Somerset House, and for those who crave utopian universes, Ruga can take you there.
– Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art
Images: Installation view of In This Imperfect Present Moment at Seattle Art Museum. 2018, photos: Natali Wiseman.
Want is the desire to possess or do, or the feeling of lack or being short of something desirable. As long as you’re wanting, you’re usually in a space of trying to gain something for yourself and yourself only. This is a result of individualized thinking, which is one of the pillars of the Western-American ideology. So what does freedom from want look and feel like? And what does it require of us to consider living free from want?
This possibility is explored by Saya Woolfalk, a New York-based artist who uses science fiction and fantasy to reimagine the world in multiple dimensions. With her multi-year projects No Place: A Ritual of the Empathics and ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space—the latter of which is on view in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy—Woolfalk creates a world of Empathics, a fictional race of women who are able to alter their genetic make-up and fuse with plants. With each body of work Woolfalk says, “I want a person to experience something that simultaneously makes them slightly uncomfortable about the potential of the world that I have created, but also gives them an excitement about a harmonious, multi-cultural society.”
While seemingly very different from human beings, the Empathics actually reflect our multicultural society in myriad ways. Through these beings, who have developed the ability to think collectively, we learn just how powerful the effects of empathy are when honed and used to empower a society in the direction of cultural evolution.
Freedom from want has the potential to take us to a place where this kind of evolution can be realized. In this free state, we are enabled to shift our focus from individual want to helping others gain what they require in order to experience the satisfaction of their needs. With the pressures of scarcity and fear eliminated, a new form of thinking emerges from a place of equity and equality.
Moving closer to freedom from want as a reality—as opposed to an out-of-reach ideal—challenges us to consider others instead of only the self. It challenges us to remove the ego—to listen and understand. It challenges what we consider necessary in order to live happy and successful lives. It challenges us to move beyond individualized, self-centered thinking and towards an elevated level of collective thinking, which is necessary for harmonious living and ultimately stimulates our capacity for acceptance, benefiting every global citizen.
– Adera Gandy, Visitor Services Officer
Image: Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson
Unless you’re looking at this image on a gigantic screen with perfect resolution, you’re missing the impact of this Saint Woman. She’s slightly larger than life, which fits the premise of the artist who elevates her subjects to a status that goes beyond our normal vision. Amy Sherald paints portraits that are not trying to convince you they are a substitute for the actual person. Instead, she paints archetypes. She is taking the time to change our minds about what a portrait can be, an evocation of a saint whose name you do not know, but who is standing and waiting for you to recognize them.
This saint is surrounded by a halo of what may appear as bright yellow on your screen. If you’re just seeing a flat expanse of color, you’re missing the depth of a painted surface that is full of nuance, with swirling dimensions that activate this setting. The same nuances of color are true of the skin, which is in variations of gray. Amy Sherald chose this color shift for a reason, “to exclude the idea of color as race.” She also has this woman’s body face forward, while her head is turned in profile. What captures her attention is unknown, and it challenges you to wonder why she’s holding herself so still while her dress is blown in a breeze of urgency. It’s the stance of a saint who’s worth coming to see in person. Visit her with a trip to see In This Imperfect Present Moment, an installation of artworks by 15 artists conveying vibrant narratives that resonate across global boundaries.
– Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art
Images: Saint Woman, 2015, Amy Sherald, American, b. 1973, Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in., Private collection, photo courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Installation view of In This Imperfect Present Moment at Seattle Art Museum. 2018, photo: Natali Wiseman.
With her current installation at SAM, the 2017 Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize winner, Sondra Perry asks, “What happens if we go to a place that we want to create as a habitable place for full life on earth but we don’t know what life looks like there?” Combining 3D rendering, terraforming, family, and the desire to bring people together inside the gallery, Perry’s work gives a machine its voice while creating a cosmic commingling of minds. See Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY at SAM before it closes July 8!
What does the word “printmaking” mean in our digital age?
SAM Gallery’s June show, ContemporaryPrintmakers, supplies answers as varied as the artwork on view.
From the digital images of Stephen Rock and Troy Gua, to the mélange of techniques used by Kate Sweeney and Iskra Johnson, these artists use printmaking for many reasons. On the practical side, Gua says collector demand led him from painting to digital mediums. Meanwhile, Kate Sweeney’s desire is to push a two-dimensional surface into revealing three-dimensional space.
Printmaking, simplified, is when an artist works on one surface and then applies or transfers that work to a different surface. You’re probably familiar with how a wood block, an acrylic stamp, or a metal plate can be pressed onto a sheet of paper—this is printmaking. The idea of the repeatable image, or part of an image, has held appeal as a way to reprise elements of an artwork for artists and art collectors for millennia. Think of Andy Warhol and how his repeated gestures are fundamental to understanding the work as well as the artist’s intent.
Today’s printmakers come to the medium for similar reasons but their toolkit includes computers, cameras, traditional print presses, handmade “pressure” prints, photocopies, and just about anything else that can be scratched and used to make marks on a surface. Whether it is the psychedelia of color explosions in Gua, Sweeney, and Rock’s work; or the whisper of minimalism in Rachel Illingworth’s pieces, the printmaking process helps artists tell their story in a multitude of ways.
Johnson says it best: “the process forces a certain surrender of control . . . with work that appears to have ‘arrived’ rather than having been ‘made’.” Her current body of work revolves around the theme of impermanence. Sweeney is contemplating gravity waves, dark matter, and all things quantum-theory related. And although 20th-century artist Agnes Martin didn’t work extensively with prints, it’s easy to see that she is a favorite of Illingworth’s. Gua wants to pay homage to the beautiful imagery and composition of Japanese woodblock prints, but also Northwestern-ize his work by using familiar landmarks.
Artist Curt Labitzke, a University of Washington Art Department Professor who runs the print studio there says his work in this show isn’t a print, but rather a painting. However, he used techniques to bring scratched elements through the back of the paper surface. So is it a print, based on the definition above? SAM Gallery invites you to see this show and decide for yourself.
The show runs June 9–July 7 and features the work of Northwest artists Troy Gua, Rachel Illingworth, Iskra Johnson, Curt Labitzke, Stephen Rock, and Kate Sweeney.
SAM Gallery is located in the lower level of Seattle Art Museum’s downtown location and open the same hours as the museum. All of the artwork is for sale and members can try before they buy, with a low-cost art-rental program.
Images: Somerset (Cathedral), Troy Gua, resin coated metallic chromogenic print on panel, 30 x 48 in. Luck or Chance: Many universes are possible, simultaneous and interpenetrated, Kate Sweeney, acrylic on paper collage with digital print, monoprint, braille print and transfer print, 46 x 49 in. View Corridor, Iskra Johnson, archival pigment print, 33 x 61 in. When Flowers Speak to Clouds, Stephen Rock, pigmented print with watercolor, mounted on board, 36 x 24 in. From the Terrace (A Study of Edges) No. 6, Rachel Illingworth, monotype with Pochoir, 40 x 31 in.
In 2013 SAM acquired a video work by contemporary artist Jacolby Satterwhite that would later feature in the SAM-organized exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art (an iteration of which has just opened at the Brooklyn Museum to widerecognition). Though Disguise was still in the planning stages, Satterwhite’s video, called Country Ball 1989-2012, had so much eclectic visual interest, and it was displayed with such a distinctly digital vision, that it was chosen early on as a representative piece for the Seattle show.
Country Ball 1989-2012 is a maelstrom of dancing figures and neon elements, a wild ride for its nearly thirteen minutes of running time. Here’s the artist himself talking through his thoughts and creative process:
Using the whole computer-generated landscape and the various vignettes that appear throughout the video, the artist brings together different modes of communication to create a new way of expressing that is distinctly his. Dance comes to the fore as a versatile language with meaning in a range of contexts. As the artist narrates, the genus of the work lies in a Mother’s Day cookout in the park (by the way, thank you to all the moms!), enlivened by choreographed dance. The artist himself performs dance in eccentric dress to add his own movement and personality to the work. Even the viewer’s perspective seems to dance as it meanders through this dynamic virtual landscape.
Re-presenting a home video and introducing the artist’s original dance performance, and itself being a museum-owned artwork, Country Ball1989-2012 illustrates what a wide spectrum of contexts and environments feature dance as an act of importance and value.
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.
When we arrive at the Asian Art Museum, the Tateuchi Galleries are filled with cardboard boxes. Each room has a low tower built up in the middle, away from the walls. You can see flashes of a panda sticker on many of them, the logo of a moving company. Some of Mr.’s paintings are already hung, and a few are leaning against the walls. In a couple of places, an 8.5×11 piece of paper with a picture of a painting is taped to the wall with masking tape, giving us a clue of what will be going there.
The paintings are huge—much larger than we would have guessed—the size of entire gallery walls. We watch as four art preparators carefully lift and place one panel of three, sliding it along a rail toward the other two until you can just barely discern the seam.
Mr. is sitting at a folding table, working on a laptop. He’s surrounded by printouts of his paintings, plans that show how to build the installation in front of him, and photographs he’s taken. He wears a striped hoodie and glasses and jeans, and he seems perfectly happy to take a break and talk about what he’s working on. He doesn’t speak much English, and I speak no Japanese, so we chat with the aid of SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, Xiaojin Wu, and Mr.’s assistant, Kozue, who’s also based here in Seattle. The necessary triplicate of the interview means we move through the galleries slowly, standing amidst the cardboard boxes and the sounds of drills nearby. Everyone is so patient it’s hard to tell how much time is passing.
The installation he’s stationed in front of is the centerpiece of the exhibition, a tribute to the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and ensuing earthquake. Most recently, it was shown at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York. When it’s finished, it’s about the size of a train car, made up of what Mr. calls “stuff.”
Right now, it’s just a skeleton made from pipes and plywood. It looks something like an erector set, and Mr. refers to it affectionately as the “caterpillar.” The art preparators working in this gallery say that it’s like putting together a puzzle. They have sketches to follow, but they’re not exact, and they’re figuring it out with Mr. as they go. It will be a massive structure, made up of hundreds of everyday objects of Japanese life that Mr. spent three months collecting. Some crates were shipped from New York City, where they were stored after the Lehmann Maupin show. Some crates were shipped from Japan. Mr.’s translator points out a box of curry, emphasizing that all of these are real things used every day in Japan. I ask if the installation changes every time he constructs it, and he says it’s hard to keep it the same, so by nature it varies. Mr. is creating new paintings with which to surround the installation. And this is the first time that Mr.’s photographs of the aftermath of the tsunami will be on display.
During the tsunami, Mr. was living in Saitama, Japan, just outside of Tokyo. One hundred days after the tsunami hit, Mr. went to the site and took hundreds of photographs. He pulls his laptop off the table to show me some of the pictures and brings it with us as we look at the wall where they’ll be plastered in a collage from bottom to top.
“I went,” Mr. says, which sound a bit like a pronouncement because in the midst of all the Japanese, he says it in English. Which—this one is. He went there. He saw it in person. He witnessed.
A hundred days after the tsunami, he explains, means it was almost summer. There was a factory nearby that had been making canned fish, and it smelled terrible. While Mr. looks through his photos to find what he wants to show me, I ask Xiaojin why she thinks it’s important that Seattle see the artwork.
“I think at the beginning we were attracted to Mr.’s work because of the tsunami installation. The tsunami was such a huge event that impacted so many Japanese people’s lives that you can look around and almost all the Japanese contemporary artists, in some way, have responded to it. But Mr.’s response is quite unique. He uses the daily items he collected. But he also went to the place and documented the aftermath, so I think it’s very meaningful for us to show that. And somehow, even though his main body of works is made up of paintings, some of the works he made even earlier tie into that idea of disaster and how we respond to it. We think it will be very interesting for the Seattle audience to see a different perspective of Japanese Pop art. Even though the paintings look like anime/manga, they are not just about this—even they have more to them, a little bit deeper meanings. You can get a bit deeper, see beyond the surface…beyond those big eyes, those smiles.” Xiaojin laughs suddenly as she references the happy-go-lucky anime faces, like there’s something bubbly just in talking about it.
Mr. draws my attention to his laptop and shows me the photos of collapsed buildings, tipped cars, downed power lines. Everything looks askew, and gray, covered in silt and dust. In some photos, Mr. is wearing a mask.
“When you first went to the tsunami site, did you experience it more as an artist, looking to make artwork, or were you just there to see and experience it as a citizen, as a civilian who’d been part of this disaster?” I ask.
Both Xiaojin as she listens to my question in English, and then Mr. as she translates it into Japanese, nod solemnly. Mr. talks for a long time.
“He was saying the tsunami just impacted everybody in Japan, everyone in the entirety of Japan,” Xiaojin starts. “So he never thought, I’ll go in there as an artist. He just wanted to go and see and experience, but after this experience, his thoughts have just changed so much, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster was also, after…it’s still going on.”
Mr. starts speaking again as Xiaojin slow down. She murmurs in agreement as he talks, a thoughtful sound.
“He says there are two types of people that the tsunami had an impact on. One is directly those people who lived there, lost their home, and really, they probably had the worst damage. But the second kind is just like him, who didn’t really directly experience the tsunami but they lost power, or water, or the supermarket didn’t have enough supplies, so they experienced it indirectly. But just on different levels, everybody was involved.”
The next week, when I go back to the Asian Art Museum, the installation is nearly complete. Above the screen that blocks gallery access, I can see a mattress, folded into a u shape over the top of the structure. The installation crams so many pieces of life together that it seems impossible it will hold, in the way an over packed suitcase may burst open at any moment. It’s about trauma, but also about the possibilities of what will come next.
The title of the installation? Give Me Your Wings – think different. No wonder Mr. has nicknamed the skeletal structure the caterpillar.