The annual Henry Gala supports Seattle’s oldest museum and celebrates Seattle’s artistic culture, and this year’s Gala on February 8 was in honor of visual artist Ann Hamilton, who will have a solo exhibition throughout the museum later this year. The snowy evening on which the event was held mimicked the theme perfectly. The theme of the gala “Blank Page, White Cloth” was heavily influenced by Hamilton’s artistic perspective, and it brought out a wide variety of art enthusiasts, patrons and artists. This year marks the first time the gala has hosted an auction, which provides economic support for this important Seattle institution, but the primary function is still as a gleeful gathering of loyal supporters and local creatives.
White draperies cascading from the ceiling and simple arrangements of baby’s breath (by Capitol Hill’s Fleurish) created an ethereally white environment filled with guests in stylish interpretations of the “white possibles” dress code. Some even incorporated the mediums of the arts into their attire, such as hand painted white shoes and bow ties. All of this created a unique immersive experience that closely reflected the minimal but evocative idiom that Hamilton has cultivated over the years.
In recent years, the gala has honored longtime Northwest artists (Jeffry Mitchell in 2013 and Gary Hill and 2012). Though Ann Hamilton is not local, she is close to the Henry’s heart and had her first show in the gallery 22 years ago. Longtime Seattle residents may remember her 1992 installation, Accountings, which The Henry Art Gallery called “one of the most beloved and memorable of the Henry’s exhibitions.”
Hamilton was born in Lima, Ohio and studied textile design at the University of Kansas. She later received her MFA in sculpture from the Yale School of Art. The background in textiles is integral to her sculpture to this day. Ann Hamilton has gained widespread recognition, and has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the Tiffany Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship…just to name a few.
One of her most recent, and most recognizable, installations was at the New York Park Avenue Armory in 2012. Hamilton transformed the large space of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall in an exhibition that united the material and the ephemeral. Enormous sheets of hanging white fabric referenced and redefined the architectural and historical space of the Park Avenue Armory. Roberta Smith, of the New York Times, described it as, “completely participatory” and encompassing “experiences both active and contemplative.” The installation, entitled The Event of a Thread, was, as Smith explained, complex and conceptual, but Hamilton’s work was also lighthearted and idyllic. The Event of a Thread incorporated music and events, creating an entire experience for the viewer. White draperies cascaded from the ceiling, engaging and absorbing viewers in the ripples of the iridescent fabric. Swings also hung in the space, and visitors were encouraged to participate in the rhythmic motions of the installation, as the movement of the swings would pull and move the large sheets. The childlike captivation of the swings created a sense of glee in the space. The Event of a Thread was a multi-sensory experience, engaging viewers and visitors and creating a space of contemplation and appreciation.
In 2014, the Henry will open all of its galleries to Hamilton’s creative mind—“extending her exploration of the relationship between tactile, aural, and visual forms of perception and experience.” The Henry defines one aspect of Hamilton’s work to be “intervening” in spaces. For the first time since the 1997 expansion, the Henry will open up the entire structure to a single artist as a laboratory of experimentation and exploration. This allowance provides Hamilton with the opportunity to explore and redefine the space of the Henry. This exhibition is likely to become a paramount and historical moment in the Seattle institution’s history.
The sense of tactility and perception exhibited in The Event of a Thread is also illustrated in Hamilton’s photography. As part of the 2014 gala, the Henry Art Gallery and Ann Hamilton auctioned off five opportunities to be photographed by the artist in her unique aesthetic. In Hamilton’s portraits, the figure is relatively obscured behind a thick plastic screen, exposing only blurred shapes and the sharper features of the subject. The thick, opaque—yet translucent—material created an austere, minimalistic aesthetic. Several Henry staff members were photographed and their portraits were on display at the gala. Dana Van Nest, the associate director of marketing, communications, and public relations at the Henry Art Gallery, was one of Hamilton’s lucky sitters. Van Nest described the experience as completely different than most portraiture, exposing a vision of herself that she does not commonly present to the public. This alternative form of portraiture exemplifies Hamilton’s ability to redefine perceptions and presentations of both a space and a person.
This is another decision to the Henry’s credit. In recent years, many artists have begun to speak out about the problems of art auctions for artists. The exposure to a new audience is generally elusive to new artists, and established artists may see their work underbid and devalued in the process. The Henry’s decision to auction an experience with the honored artist doesn’t devalue any work and keeps the attention squarely on the honoree. It’s a good move by the gallery and another indication that their allegiance is to the artists themselves. Cheers to many more years of the Henry.