There was plenty of room for error in The Frye Art Museum’s latest show, Genius: a survey of work from more than 65 artists and cultural organizations, all recipients of The Stranger’s Genius Award. (That list includes the Frye Art Museum itself.) Group shows of new work are notoriously difficult to curate, and the Frye’s track record in this realm has been spotty. It’s not the first time that the museum has delegated part of the curatorial process to an outside source; the recent #SocialMedium selected works from the permanent collection based on “votes” on social media. That was an interesting enough experiment that got people in the door, but The Genius Awards have a checkered reputation—too hipster, too nepotistic, too Seattle—so some will raise an eyebrow at a show curated around them.
And yet, Genius is off to a thoughtful and promising start that has me excited for the next 16 weeks, during which time the museum will host a bevy of performances and literary and film festivals. Rather than cramming everyone into the Frye’s modest gallery spaces all at once, the museum’s greathouse gallery at back will have a rotating display of work, while other happenings take place in gallery spaces and the lecture hall. As always, admission to the Frye and these events is free and open to the public.
The calendar of events is compelling, and the installations inside and outside the museum are worthy of attention. But are they worthy of being called Genius? The short answer is Yes, but it takes the rest of this essay to unpack just what that means.
What is a Genius…Award?
Newcomers may not be aware of the Genius Awards, the annual award program of local alt-weekly The Stranger. The first awards were issued in 2003 and the 13th batch of recipients were just honored in August. The first winners were selected by The Stranger staff, and each successive year has included the votes of both staff and former winners. The title Genius is treated somewhat ironically, a grandiose riff on the MacArthur Genius grant. It winks at the absurdity of award programs, including itself. I am of the mind that all honors are dubious, so I don’t take issue with that aspect, but there is an insincerity to it that I find tedious—that definitively hipster quality that demands attention even as it proclaims that it doesn’t take itself seriously. Such insincerity is cited to excuse the lax criteria when a Genius Award is given to an acting member of The Stranger staff (Charles Mudede, 2010), but it doesn’t halt mutterings of the blatant cronyism.
The culture of the Genius Awards may repel some, but awardees are consistently worthy of attention and to be taken seriously. They are artists and organizations that have added something to the local culture, and I am all for giving a boost to cultural producers in a town that has had many ups and downs for the creative class. There’s no question that the Genius Awards still serve a good purpose on a local scale.
But is a list of winners a worthy rubric for curating a museum exhibition? Is it too Seattle-centric? And is there a conflict of interest in having a media organization provide it?
To the first question, it poses a unique curatorial challenge; one must create a cohesive show from individuals and organizations of many disciplines, some of which are not generative and therefore are ill-suited to create objects for display in a museum. This mistake was made with the Frye’s 2013 group show Chamber Music, which required composers and writers to generate work alongside visual artists, all within small physical dimensions. A simultaneous solo exhibition of virtuosic work by Nicolai Fechin was visible through the door to adjacent galleries, and the show of new Seattle work—all created on short notice, a matter of weeks for some—looked all the more amateurish in comparison. It would seem that this mistake has not been repeated.
Genius has offered a slightly more generous time frame for the creation of work in its spaces, and in fact the co-curators, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and Erika Massaquoi, were empowered to focus on the logistics of the show and avoid the politics of selecting participants by deferring to the list of award recipients—which, being chosen by a growing swath of the Seattle cultural community, is in some measure more democratic than selection by a pair of curators. I would not like to see such a model become the norm for institutions, but on this occasion it works.
The fact that it is so Seattle-centric is part of why the show is as cohesive as it is, so its limited geographic focus is actually a good thing, too. Many of the artists are creating work nationally and internationally, but given carte-blanche as they were in this show, their focus shifts to either the concerns that are most immediate or the most universal (or both). The Frye has stepped up in recent years as the Seattle museum most willing to take risks and promote local artists, which is necessary if Seattle is to maintain its reputation as a cultural center. There have been many setbacks to all branches of the artistic community in the last decade, so including work from artists across many disciplines was a risk worth taking.
Lastly, as for a potential conflict of interest, I have not perceived one on the part of the museum. It is fair to say they have worked from The Stranger‘s list, but The Stranger at this point is no more than a media partner. Certainly, a conflict might exist if its curators expected to leverage their connections to dictate what could and could not be written by those at a publication (any publication), but this is not the case here.
With those challenges addressed, there comes the real heart of the matter: the coherent staging of works by artists creating independently of each other and without a clear theme provided by the museum. In some ways, the curators had no choice but to leave it to chance, giving the artists room to experiment, including the “freedom to fail”—a term that came up repeatedly in the press tour. Some pieces are more successful than others, but nothing fails, in part because a thematic consensus spontaneously arose among the works—change, emergence, from the individual to the universal, the reckoning of profit and loss.
Genius: A Formal Analysis
This thematic darkness is met with an actual physical darkness, as most of the rooms are low-lit for video installations. Even in the bright southern corridor, an experiment in woodcut prints by artist (generally a ceramicist) Jeffry Mitchell shows a repeating, faded silhouette of Snoopy sleeping atop his doghouse that becomes “funereal” (to borrow the word that the artist applied himself when speaking of it, and which I consider the mot just). This is the most nostalgic installation in a show brimming with retrospect. Most of the works are more resigned, abstracted or even clinical in their approach to past or impending losses.
For example, Victoria Haven‘s installation Studio X in the front foyer has dual projections showing construction outside of her current studio from two perspectives. She has recorded the progress over the course of months as the destruction/construction nears her, and it is replayed at high speed in sections of weeks, which will change over the course of the exhibition. The piece is so named because this is the tenth studio that Haven has occupied while in Seattle. Like her previous studios, this one is doomed to demolition, so the vision of progress is like an approaching tide, ready to swallow up Haven’s…haven. It is not a diatribe, nor is it self-pitying. It is resigned to change—a document of both growth and loss.
In a gallery around the corner, this notion becomes even more abstract in DK Pan‘s video installation Tsunami Capable Tide Stations > West Coast 2015. Pan also created long recordings and is playing them back in a sequence, but these are of actual tides coming in at sunset from tide stations down the west coast, part of a collaboration with NOAA’s Tides and Currents Program. It’s a study in liminality; melancholy, but not dour. Its twilight scenes (like the twilit galleries) are a call to meditation.
A different sort of meditative air pervades the gallery to the north, where deep blue carpeting provides a warm, comfortable space within which three massive embroidered panels hang. The panels were designed by artist Nep Sidhu, who was called into the exhibition by Ishmael Butler (aka Shabazz Palaces, winner of the 2010 Genius award for music). Sidhu worked with a team round-the-clock for months to hand-embroider the triptych, titled Malcolm’s Smile. (Those who saw his work in the Frye’s show Your Feast Has Ended will recognize the rectilinear whirl of coptic script he incorporated into metal and wood sculptures.) Butler has created a complementary soundscape, Ecdysis, that pulses down among the intricate panels by Sidhu. The two artists are drawn to the idea of sacred spaces. (The notion that they even exist is under siege by materialistic thought, and has been for some time.) I would say that they have done more than create a facsimile of reverence here. They have created a warm, deeply considered aesthetic terrain that—though temporary in this space and not tied to a recognizable belief structure—stands for something lasting and universal. On a personal note, I am always appreciative when museums include experiences that are accessible to the unsighted, and this is the most inclusive example of that in Genius. (In case someone is listening: Can we get some Braille for the Maged Zaher poems in the back gallery?)
The next installation by dance and installation duo zoe | juniper allows for a different sort of sonic immersion: cylinders of hanging string stretch from floor to ceiling, and inside each a sound dome projects sounds from their past performances. Attendees are invited to stand inside the cylinders or lay beneath them and gaze upward as film projections light the surfaces of the cylinders and cast long strands of light across the floor. It’s the most visually stunning room, and also the site of durational performances by the duo and a troupe of performers. I attended the first one this weekend to just get a feel for it, and it was interesting to note that at moments the dancers and museum-goers were indistinguishable. Don’t come expecting grand jetés through the gallery: It’s a thoughtful, quiet and interactive use of the space, in which the performers activate the space with simple live movement and also engage directly with attendees. If you have a little dancer in the family, I strongly recommend coming in for at least one of the three performances remaining in coming months. (See the calendar below for dates.)
In the next room, the large ink and graphite drawings of Lead Pencil Studio (Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo) are the only new works in the show born of representational markmaking, but their content is still surreal and their execution among the most exquisite. Night-time scenes of paved areas are disrupted by pits (a careful, inexplicable excavation in a parking lot; an eroded hole in an intersection, with a large, lone pine rising from a mound in the middle of it), but the lights are on and the banality of the surroundings suggests that this is all perfectly normal. And why not? We are terraforming our planet (and this city) at an unprecedented rate. The scenes that LPS depict may be unlikely, but they are no more unnatural than the large-scale engineering that we now take for granted.
An installation by LPS in the gravel lot behind the museum expresses this more pointedly. The piece, titled “Thereafter,” has created a massive, blocky mound of earth, concrete and wood in the middle of a lot, topped with a lone light pole. Most of the soil came from the nearby excavation of Yesler Terrace, and was built around a thick wooden frame to support the earth and the pole atop. The structure will erode with rain over time, no doubt exposing sections of this framework before the exhibition ends. This natural erosion of the manmade (itself a reminder of the manmade erosion of the natural) is a poignant emblem of the philosophical melancholy of Genius as a whole. One thinks of Hesiod’s “Works and Days”…and I think that as much he lamented being born to the Iron Age, he would have preferred it still to the Silicon Age, with its relativism and abstraction in which he saw the apocalypse.
This is not to say that I agree, and the show as a whole, too, is careful to not be reactionary or listless. As stated before, when it confronts change, it is asking whether we can say with confidence that what is lost and gained betters our lots, or if it is merely change for its own sake, or for the sake of ego, or even the notion that change is inherently good because what came before is always flawed—the dogma of a corporate culture that prides itself on its “disruption” of markets and technology. One might position Genius as a retort to this sort of culture. It behooves one to look deeper and see how “genius” the concept is always at work in the culture and see its work not as an antidote to the ills, but its unfallen state.
What is Genius?
Genius is too often equated with a lone figure challenging and disrupting the culture, as if this were the primary aim of the genius. This understanding has it completely backwards. It is the nature of systems (economic, political, etc) to perpetuate themselves, but they may be rigid or fluid in this. A rigid, unaccommodating system does not keep the peace, but pushes unrest and fear to the very roots of individual being and creates the assumption that this is our natural state, but it is not, and so disruption becomes inevitable, not just by genius but by anyone aware enough that life needn’t be dictated by dogma.
Some will adopt revolution or protest as the means of expression. Some of those will incorporate art into their protest. Some artists will incorporate protest into the art. These are all challenges to the system, but among them (and also in its own quiet corner), the genius already exists in its own alternative state. Empathy and humility are as intrinsic to the genius as control and disruption are to the system in which it abides, and that will often put the two at odds. The latter thrives on a sense of inevitability, while the former will always allow for myriad outcomes and perspectives, even if their oeuvre shows a consistent style and form of expression.
This backwards understanding and the overall cynicism and egoism of the modern West has long fomented a worship of those who know how to work the system to their own ends, upending what came before—whether it is a mode of production, a means of communication, or an existing community. Attrition is not calculated, primarily because the victors tend to write history, even on the smallest scale, but also because we actually don’t know to measure the cultural impact of these changes until long after the fact. The myopia of the conqueror/disruptor is not just forgiven, but treated with a certain reverence: The magical ability to get shit done. Never mind that it is largely without empathy, or treated with a tone-deaf bargaining of assets that is bound to fail the disenfranchised, who know that no amount of capital can replace a legacy…nor can it buy a valid legacy, for those seeking to establish one at the 11th hour. (Looking at you, Alice Walton and Crystal Bridges.)
Tied to capital (which seeks only to increase itself at the cost of others), this disruptive, winner-take-all approach is particularly poisonous. Examples are countless, but Martin Shkreli was a prime example from recent weeks. His example (hiking the prices of life-saving medications) is galling because it has direct, mortal effects on people. It reveals a sociopathic egoism that may be belied when the consequences are less fatal to the body, but destroy the historic and emotional ties that give value to the lives of a population. Even when well-meaning (say, as in certain large nonprofits), a dogmatic approach to “progress” and disruption assumes that existing systems have inefficiencies that cause greater problems and these must be fixed—and it is up to “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” to be the saviors of all. Well-meaning hubris is still hubris. Furthermore, cultural hegemony is not erased by a desire to do right by one’s inherited definition of right, and unforeseen ripples of destruction are inevitable, eventually accepted as the eggs to be broken for the greater omelet.
True genius is not concerned with being right or “about the right things.” It’s concerned with Being in all its intricacy, and it explores that through all forms of creation and discovery—both the penetrating eye of science and the embracing body of art. Having that as one’s touchstone may not reveal all the answers to life’s problems, but it is a better starting point than ledgers and bylaws.
Museums, despite being seen as cultural troves, are as much a part of the ruling bureaucracy as anything. They have typically buoyed the hegemony of the culture, displaying a canon selected by scholars and the spoils of imperialism. Minorities and the voices of the conquered were not given any attention until recent decades (outside of niche collections), and mainstream institutions still disproportionately focus on the canon and the leaders of the art market, dictating opinion to visitors more than inviting inquiry. Such models need disruption, and not every attempt will be successful. The Frye’s Genius pushes the needle a little by creating what amounts to a visually compelling stage to be activated by performances and the audience itself rather than a collection of objects from a few, limited perspectives. It may seem sparse to some attendees (and this is partly because the museum’s building itself is of modest size and does not allow other, busier exhibitions), but we need to recalibrate our senses for this more minimal approach from time to time, and for those who want more stimulation, there are plenty of events to come.
Genius is in essence a lab for genius itself, a cluster of unique sanctuaries that allow for people to come together or withdraw. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most brightly lit room is built to be a dead end. The installation You Always Leave Me Wanting More by SuttonBeresCuller is an effigy of development, capital and disruption. A bevy of bright, casino-style red arrow signs seem to have torn up through the museum floors. Phallic, linear, an aspirational trajectory, rising but tilting, as if ready to topple—there is no sanctuary here, but it serves as a reminder of the egoic drive that the rest of the exhibit counters. (How fitting, too, that its room adjoins that of DK Pan’s tidal films. The vertical of the arrows runs perpendicular to the serene horizon, beneath the fluxing waves, the equilibrium within mutability that the ocean suggests better than any manmade structure ever could.)
Egoism and aspiration have always been with us, but more linear concepts of progress and time (bereft of a spiritual eternity) are recent aspects of the modern era, and the essential questions posed by modernists in the early 20th century remain largely unaddressed. Heraclitus insisted on constant change in the universe, but the substitution of logos (λόγος) for logos (™) has moved the contingency of being from the universal to the arbitrary personal (and capital). To anchor the senses, we turn to spectacle. Artists like Banksy enjoy acclaim by keeping to a cartoonish diagnosis (“We are addicted to spectacle.”), a dismal diagnosis (“We will always be addicted to spectacle”) and then offering the most cynical, hopeless treatment. (“Here’s some regurgitated spectacle. Take two talking points and tweet me in the morning.”) This is an insidious form of philistinism beneath an artful veneer. It exists in the cultural criticism surrounding it, often from the loudest, most shrill voices. Doomsaying and philistinism have always gone hand-in-hand, often with a toxic pretense of piety, from Savonarola to Ted Cruz. But this is not a matter of right and left. More left-leaning media like Gawker and Vice are not the counter to this, but another species of it.
Caught in the middle, the artist’s quieter gestures are drowned out, while even the legitimacy of the humanities as a whole is questioned. Where it is embraced, it may be treated as a bargaining chip, and cultural producers are tapped for political, social and real capital.
But in Pandora’s Box there is yet hope, and Genius makes room for that. It isn’t just hope for the future, but an understanding that even under duress, genius will find a foothold and create, whether its on scrap paper, in a shoe box, or on the walls of a museum.
A number of vinyls line the southern corridor, each a little tonic to ease the modern mind. Playwright Valerie Curtis-Newton‘s “manifesto for Creative Survival” reads like a pep talk, earnest in its prose, nothing but hopeful and warm. Paul Mullin‘s “Sonnet Manifesto,” is wry and self-effacing. Its pithier moments state that “Art is the diametric of survival,” at the beginning and that “Perfect understanding is as toxic to art as survival.” The two manifestos make quite a pair. The former preaches persistence and joy in the process; the latter does, too, but only after one accepts that hardship is inevitable and you will die to self repeatedly if you are doing it right (even if it means retiring from the very thing that brought you acclaim).
Novelist Sherman Alexie offers two excerpts that skewer the fragility of the ego that means well, that hopes, “as every son does, that [one] will become a better man than all of the men who helped create [one],” or wants to be a “liberal landlord,” fostering the creation of art without fully assessing what that means or requires (especially in a system unforgiving of poor investments).
My favorite literary contributions are at back, in the gallery around the blackbox theatre. Satisfying the Frye’s founding requirement that a portion of the founding collection always be shown, seven paintings are displayed with accompanying ekphrastic poems by Maged Zaher. A few are in English, but several were written in Egyptian Arabic and the vinyls show only this. In ekphrasis, one is able to write from an image, creating a dialog or complement. Nothing is lost. In translation…well, Umberto Eco calls translation “the art of failure” for good reason. But one can see the translations of Zaher’s poems in a booklet around the corner. The chosen paintings take him in many directions: the disillusion following revolution, as in a response to Munkácsy’s The Condemned (“It is just soldiers and soldiers/To recapture the space you used to breathe”); the apotheosis of nature, of self and epoch in nature, in Somogyi’s View of the Königsee (“The mountains announce/How to inject oneself into history/Without landscape consumption”). In all cases, Zaher’s responses are lucid, and in the best cases they startle one with deeper, unexpected readings of images that some might see as kitschy or mundane. I would love a whole museum full of this. It teaches people to read paintings and poetry anew.
The installation that brings it all together (the literary, the performative, the visual and the auditory, only minus the tactile), is that by C. Davida Ingram, Avatar: Fanon & Decca. Just shy of twenty minutes, it includes a dialog between two of the artist’s avatars, artist Fanon Brown and art critic Decca Jones, both portrayed by Amontaine Aurore. Opposed to the monolith of race and femininity, and even the popular notion of “the artist,” the dialog between the two (in one) effortlessly demonstrates what it means to form one’s own dialectic. During the press tour, Ingram said the world is “aching to be reunited with darkness and femininity.” In her video, she eschews the usual modes of identity politics and also refuses to dignify the oppression and the archetype of victim, instead presenting the dual self-possession of Fanon and Decca, followed by a dreamier, sequence in which four black women ascend the tower of King Street Station.
This whole sequence is healing in its beauty. The historic building, its neoclassical flourishes and tower have a religious air, but are not attached to a dogma—rather to time and history itself, passage and change. The women wear white beekeeper outfits, which at a glance are like saintly cassocks, but are grounded in this world—fertility and husbandry, the sting and the sweetness. Indeed, as they are positioned in the columned mezzanine of the train station and atop the tower, as they ascend they are nothing but beatific. The power of this statement is not that they are redeemed or that they are clawing out of the past. Rather, that the qualities that they represent—darkness and femininity—have always been precious and necessary. The genius knows it. The artist knows it. When those who have denied it finally know it, it’ll be so good for them that they will weep.
Genius is more than a response to the changing cultural landscape of Seattle, as Seattle is a microcosm of western attitudes around development, capitalism, technology and the arts. The intersections of these things are ripe for commentary, and a lot of it gets quite brash, so it is refreshing to see such a thoughtful approach being taken by these artists and the curatorial team. The Frye’s 2012 exhibit Mw [Moment Magnitude] was their first major foray into a large, collaborative curatorial approach and resulted in a much airier, open space. Then as now, it was activated by many performances and rehearsals, including works by participants in Genius, such as zoe | juniper, Shabazz Palaces, Jeffry Mitchell and Charles Mudede. Then as now, development of the city (especially Yesler Terrace) was of key consideration. Then as now, the museum sought to live up to its calling to be a free museum, open and inviting to all in the community. But as development has hastened and housing crises have hit the city hard, it’s actually a worse time now for the arts as studio spaces disappear, rents rise and the overall aesthetics of the city become more homogenized and uninspiring. It is no use just blaming the developers. There is change of all sorts in the air—changes that ought to bring forth introspection from us all.
The Frye is transformed for now into a place perfectly conducive to introspection, each gallery slightly different from the rest, from the courtyard at front to the blackbox in back. Even an installation in the lot across the street bespeaks this need to create one’s own haven as one forges ahead. Alex Schweder’s Hotel Rehearsal was used in a cross country trip by the artist. A small bed on a hydraulic lift was attached atop a van, allowing the artist to sleep comfortably and in relative security wherever he stopped. It’s almost too on the nose as a symbol of rising above and moving forward and also of dreams. Let it above all be a symbol of genius always finding a home in the world, not by mere resourcefulness, but by an embrace of what is natural and absurd, of peace, no matter how improbable. Sweet dreams, indeed.
Genius / 21 Century / Seattle is on display The Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Ave) through January 10, 2016. See the exhibition page for a listing of related events.