Seattle: SAMs Masterpieces, Bugs on Display

With the reopening this month of the Seattle Art Museum after an extended hibernation for its expansion, art assumed center stage in the city, and galleries joined the festivities, many of which spotlighted local talent.

Howard House devoted its space to a first-time show by the organic sculptor Jim Rittimann, and Ballard Fetherston called in Elizabeth Jameson, a known quantity locally who’s deserving of a larger audience. James Harris Gallery took another approach, presenting landscape photographs by L.A.’s Amir Zaki, along with a few landscapes of a far more naturalistic order by Seattle photographer Glenn Rudolph, seen in the gallery’s back room. And then there was SAM’s grand reopening, which debuted star selections from its rapidly expanding collection.


Museum Exhibitions

Seattle Art Museum
“SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle”
Through Sept. 9

Seattle Art Museum this spring announced it has received promises and gifts of more than 1,000 works of art from more than 40 collectors, including multiple pieces by artists such as Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter, and standout objects, too—among them Bird in Space (1926) by Constantin Brancusi, one of Marsden Hartleys German soldier paintings (1914-15), and Edward Hoppers Chop Suey (1929). They were gifted in honor of the museum’s expanded downtown headquarters, which opened in May and was designed by Allied Works of Portland, Ore., and in honor of SAM’s 75th birthday in 2008.

The first show of what’s coming into the museum, “SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle,” opens with Brancusi, Hartley, Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, and Barnett Newman in the first gallery, and covers in a series of other rooms the museum’s diverse and decades-long history, from Alberto Giacometti to Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock to Sterling Ruby and Maurizio Cattelan.

A highlight is the Richter room, devoted to seven of his paintings, which of course looks like a show of paintings by seven different artists. There’s also a surprising, day-glo-hued early abstract painting by Eva Hesse, and curators have paired two new arrivals—a photograph of Cindy Sherman as a Renaissance artist, and Cattelan’s taxidermied dog in a plastic chair—with two 17th-century Dutch still lifes.

Along with fresh and interconnected new installations of all the collections, from Asian and African to Minimalism and Tokyo pop, this survey is a glimpse at promising things to come for the museum.


Gallery Exhibitions

Howard House
“Jim Rittimann: Paradise Insects/Symbiotic Relationships”
Through June 16

Jim Rittimann makes new insects from old ones. He collects and takes apart bugs. He puts the wings of one on the abdomen of another. He adds unsightly teeth and jaws. And then he sets the insects so they piggyback on one another, some seeming to work in tandem, others seeming to irritate each other, or they appear to be in hot pursuit of each other, or to consider their twin selves in an invisible mirror. These hybrid organisms pinned inside wood-framed display boxes like entomological specimens, frozen in action, are what Rittimann calls “Paradise Insects/Symbiotic Relationships.”

They aren’t easy to look at, but it may not be for the reasons you’d think. At first, yes, they’re gross. They are shiny, pointy, robotic, and cold. But after looking over the 42 boxes in the show, containing 113 individual “Paradise Insects,” one adjusts to their strangeness and notes their affinities with all kinds of contemporary media, from action movies to journalistic photography. And then the problem is not that they’re dead but that they seem to be too much alive. It’s a good problem, one that is, as in animal works by Jean Dubuffet, Damien Hirst, and Maurizio Cattelan, rife with implications about art and death.

Then again, if you prefer not to go that far, you can simply enjoy the scenes playing out in front of you and look for the references to, say, the photography of Eadweard Muybridge or kung fu. And if you know anything about the adaptive uses of bug parts, you can have a field day.


Ballard Fetherston Gallery
“Elizabeth Jameson: Nurses and Queens”
Through June 2

In 1999, Seattle artist Elizabeth Jameson made herself a dress with 40-foot-long sleeves and walked it through the streets of Vienna, where she was doing a residency. To her surprise, people did not glare; they were in awe. They parted to make way for her. She was a queen. All of her work since then has incorporated fashion, theatricality, and a slightly scary sense of precarious situations. Now, in her first solo show since 2002, the fear becomes specific. It’s about war.

Jameson’s drawings in charcoal and pastel, her fabric sculptures, and her large installation made from Styrofoam coated in white fondant icing are loosely based on historical costumes for military field nurses and queens during a time of war. A series of tiny dresses and hats and crowns hand-sewn from the drab, beat-up, stained skin of a used fur coat are transformed into battlefield-scarred uniforms for grim-looking dolls—there is a nurse specializing in lost limbs or last rites, a queen bejeweled with the stars given to families whose loved ones are killed in action. There are no doctors or warriors here; it is too late for acts of heroism.

The thick charcoal lines on the drawings give them the appearance of inky cartoon cels. Each character, set on white paper against no background at all, is a type defined by her clothing and her impenetrable gas mask, which renders her faceless. One depicts an infant nurse in a gas mask, modeled after Velazquezs infanta in Las Meninas.

Jameson’s large installation is somehow both military and bridal, a portrait of a queen in a gas mask surrounded by layer cakes, all covered under the blanket of fondant icing. No skeletal structures are visible in this new work (unlike some of Jameson’s earlier work that involved corseting and panniers), and there are no faces. Everyone here is hiding out.


James Harris Gallery
“Amir Zaki: At What Point Is the Wax No Longer Wax?”
Through June 2

The question of this show’s title refers to a meditation by Descartes, which rephrased for the purposes of photography asks: How far can anything be manipulated and still be real?

L.A. artist Amir Zaki takes stark, black-and-white photographs of trees and stumps set against jet-black backgrounds that look as if they were shot at night. Or perhaps the backdrops were digitally inserted? The trees themselves are odd, somehow off. One is so lanky it looks like the product of an extreme graft. Others look normal, but are set in locations that seem unlikely. The most pathetic image, nearly existential, is of an amputated stump planted against a sidewalk. It is seen, again, against a background so flat and dark that the setting might in fact be a studio.

Zaki has left every one of the 11 photographs in the show untitled, and in his published artist’s statement, he doesn’t explain the process, except to make clear that he is neither a purist nor a shameless manipulator. Each image is its own construction of “the natural,” and a good guess is that each one has its own artifice, whether at the level of the tree itself, or in the making of the photograph, or simply by being forced to acknowledge the ever-present possibility of falsehood.

This is almost painfully well-trod territory in photography, going back to the very roots of the medium as a documentary form—the heresy of manipulation sprung up long before Photoshop and genetic engineering. But what makes Zaki’s portraits so vital is their genuine fence sitting. The casual, undistressing way they blur fiction is a testament to the virtuality and half-light of contemporary global life.