Italo Calvino expressed beautifully how a single city could be perceived dozens of different ways in his paean to the imagination (and Venice), Invisible Cities. Indeed, we all experience the complexities of city-life differently, but in the Pacific Northwest, I actually don’t see much art responding to the urban experience and landscape. More often, its the natural landscape, or something completely abstract. (One notable exception was plein air painter Christopher Martin Hoff, a personal favorite who passed away far too young a few years ago.)
As the Seattle Art Fair brings in so many galleries from larger urban environments, we will also get to see more works that engage directly with the sights and lights of city life
Paul Thiebaud Gallery (San Francisco, CA), Booth E19
“After The Rain” by Eileen David
At a distance, Eileen David‘s painting of a wet road “After The Rain” looks photo realistic, but come a little closer and you see her strokes. It’s not exactly painterly, but it keeps the image canny and engaging when the scene might otherwise feel a little too pedestrian. What might feel too mineral and harsh becomes a little lush. David captures the reflective qualities of the rain-slicked pavement, giving everything a bit of radiance that we in the soggy PNW can appreciate. We have to appreciate it, or else we would go absolutely nuts every winter.
Actually, maybe we do…
In any event, David’s painting is a shimmering vision that reminds us that, under the right conditions, even an otherwise unremarkable corner of the city can attain a jewel-like beauty if you have eyes for it.
Jenkins Johnson Gallery (San Francisco, CA), Booth C4
“Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York, 1952” by Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks was one of the most important photojournalists and artists documenting Harlem and the Black experience in America from the 40s, into the 70s. His collaborations with the novelist Ralph Ellison are among some of his most noted works (and are central to an exhibit devoted to the two men that is traveling the states at the moment, now at the Art Institute of Chicago). His photo, “The Invisible Man, Harlem, New York,” is the end of a longer series that imagines the protagonist of Ellison’s Invisible Man as he tentatively emerges from a subterranean hole, where the novel begins and ends.
Having endured countless abuses and betrayals (and narrowly escaped a lynching) the has waited and told his story from this hidden shelter. To one unfamiliar with the story, the image of a man emerging from a manhole at twilight might make for a striking image, but an extraordinary event. Nothing directly speaks to the mayhem that the Invisible Man has fled, nor the real life struggles, riots and oppression that Parks and Ellison were treating in their work, and therefore the significance of emerging. That emerging is still happening.
Woodside/Braseth Gallery (Seattle, WA), Booth B21
“The Builders, The Family,” by Jacob Lawrence
Another African American artist famous for documenting the black experience in the urban landscape was Jacob Lawrence, whose long tenure in Seattle as an art professor at University of Washington (which now maintains a gallery in his name) has made him a favorite among local collectors. “The Builders, The Family,” is part of a series of work Lawrence made in the 70s with bright, primary colors showing quotidian activity in black and urban communities, and many of these are on display at Woodside/Braseth.
The bright, graphic forms of Lawrence’s image have great appeal, but are secondary to the narrative content. After the 60s Civil Rights movement and the end of racial redlining in cities like Seattle, opportunities had expanded slightly for these communities, but popular depictions of people of color had not even inched from negative stereotypes. Positive and honest depictions were necessary for the wellbeing of the black community, and this alone made Lawrence’s work vital—and still does, as forty years later representations of black men and women remain fatally skewed. However, the power of Lawrence’s work is not contingent on the existence of bias; it would remain beautiful in the future to which “The Builders” points. The universally appreciated message here is the creation of a legacy, from the individual to the larger city to the world beyond. Such determination is still needed…perhaps more than ever.
See more urban visions at the Seattle Art Fair. I suggest the delightful film-noir inspired miniature of a rowhouse, “Paper Noir – Laundromat,” by Davy and Kristin McGuire at Muriel Guépin Gallery (Booth D1), and an early painting by Jacob Lawrence, “Rain” (1938), which precedes even his Migration Series, the collection of works produced in the early 40s that established his reputation in the art world. See it at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (Booth D9).
The 2016 Seattle Art Fair runs from August 4 through August 7. Learn more and buy passes on the Seattle Art Fair website, and check out all our coverage of the booths, events and the vision of the fair as a whole.