The Frye Has Never Looked Better, And That Is Saying Something

Posted on March 14, 2019, 6:53 am
13 mins
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There is a lot to love about The Frye Art Museum. Its modest scale makes it physically approachable and accessible in a way that grand institutions often are not…and the all-important barrier of money is also not an issue, because admission is always free to the Frye’s exhibits.

Don’t get me wrong: I feel absolutely lightheaded with anticipation every time that I take the tram to The Getty…but that’s my (free) version of Disneyland. The Frye is my version of church when everything goes right…the kind of church that is actually about beauty, reverence, and community.

Over the years, The Frye has consistently had some of the best exhibition design in town, too. When I think of truly beautiful local exhibits, the very first that comes to mind is The Frye’s 2016 Vilhelm Hammershøi monograph, under the direction of Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. It was perfectly executed (wall color, lighting, didactics, arrangement, et al). Even when the art at The Frye doesn’t particularly send me, such as Tavares Strachan’s show last year, the overall presentation is often pretty damn impressive (as it was with Strachan).

But right now…right now feels special. The four current shows at The Frye are relatively small in scale, and completely diverse in subject and medium. They could be competing, but instead, they complement each other beautifully. The museum has never looked better, and that’s really saying something.

Tschabalala Self

Curated by Amanda Donnan, on display through April 28

This is the first solo museum exhibit of works stateside by Tschabalala Self (born 1990 in Harlem). Self’s mixed media portraiture is as playful as it is confrontational. It is grotesque, but it doesn’t just arrest the viewer by shock. Her choices of color and material are fascinating, and depending on how one’s eye travels across the canvas, a very different story and mood can emerge. The gaze of her subjects (despite their heavy distortion) can be seen as curious, incredulous, apathetic, or even fierce depending on that changeable mood. You keep coming back to them because they truly are a different work, a different experience every time.

The Rain Doesn’t Know Friends From Foes

Curated by Amanda Donnan, on display through April 28

Still from “Reign of Winter” by Rokni Haerizadeh. Image courtesy of Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde and the artist.

The projections in the room adjacent to Tschabalala Self come from Dubai-based trio, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Hesam Rahmanian. The show is another fantastic debut—the first west coast exhibit dedicated solely to their work.

Their process is as follows:

1) They source footage of public spectacles and viral events (e.g. the royal wedding; camerawoman and stone-cold xenophobe Petra Laszlo kicking and tripping refugees)

2) They print out sequential frames of these videos and collage and paint atop them. Thousands of individual works on paper are thus made.

3) Traditional stop-motion technique brings the altered stills to life as a surreal reimagining of the original footage.

A viral image, once pumped into the frantic bloodstream of media, dilutes quickly from outrage into a listless miasma, one that no longer stirs any discernible emotions but dread and despair. The works in The Rain Doesn’t Know Friends From Foes don’t reinvigorate the viral image, nor seek to. The animations are too strange for that: headless, legless men floating along rail lines; a royal pageant that looks like something from Hieronymous Bosch; humans becoming an indeterminate swarm of beasts.

In short, a more pressing question is posed about the reality of the image in the first place—the ways in which it was contextualized and simplified to have its effect, and inevitably dissolve into more meaningless media murk. The Haerizadehs and Rahmanian reference all manner of western (especially imperial, colonial) imagery to poke at the fundamental disconnect between image and reality in a hypermediated culture, especially when the individuals involved are reduced to abstract notions.

Cherdonna Shinatra: DITCH

Curated by David Strand, on display through April 28

Cherdonna Shinatra clowns it up at DITCH. Photo by Jenny May Peterson.

In-gallery performances usually come across as such an after-thought, my expectations were very low when I walked in to see DITCH at 11:30am on a Tuesday morning. Since the opening, performance artist and choreographer Cherdonna Shinatra (aka Jodi Kuehner) has been doing a performance a day with six other dancers, six days a week. How ambitious could it be?

It turns out, it’s extremely ambitious—and affecting. (I may have even cried a little.) I also didn’t expect it to be standing room only for a performance before lunchtime on a weekday. I love being wrong at times like this.

The performance occurs within the larger installation: a room-sized soft sculpture of a woman’s body and her head (staring at her body from the opposite corner). The dancers emerge from her varicolored pudendum and dance the length of the gallery, between benches on three sides. The various vantage points and audience interactions offer varied experiences.

What can be said without reservation is that the hour-long arc of the performance goes a lot of places that one does not expect at the outset. Cherdonna emerges to strains of carnival music in full clown regalia, She is diffident and awkward, a touch obscene, and cautiously curious. Then out come the other girls and their hula hoops. The sounds, costumes, capering initially disarm the viewer…but things turn sinister. The performers don’t all catch on at once, but when they do… Let’s just say that if anyone has ever felt like the outsider, but hasn’t been able to articulate why or to account for the social siege that ensued, DITCH is going to conjure some feelings.

The coda of the performance goes another route, subjecting the audience and performers to a seemingly endless loop of lyrics from “I’m a Woman,” which starts playful, gets awkward, then exhausting, then painful (there were primal howls aplenty around the 12-minute mark).

In short, this clownery is no laughing matter.

Gretchen Frances Bennett: Air, the free or unconfined space above the surface of the earth

Curated by Amanda Donnan, on display through June 2

Gretchen Bennett, “Vesna is Spring.” Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Jueqian Fang.

My first exposure to Gretchen Bennett‘s work was at Green Gothic at Hedreen Gallery, curated by Amanda Manitach. I hardly noticed Bennett’s pale drawings based on stills from The Killing on my first trip to that show. It took a second trip (and better light, a diffuse grey) to really appreciate those works, and from then on I was hooked.

Her solo show at the back of The Frye features a selection from different bodies of work from the last decade. Source materials include an image of singer Anohni (then performing was Antony), screen grabs from Gus van Sant’s Kurt Cobain biopic, and photos from Bennett’s own childhood. The low light and low ceilings of the Frye’s back gallery are just right for this intimate exploration of how (and why) we document our lives, and how the methods of documentation and the documents themselves then shape our self-perception.

Bennett shares space with projections of photos by Paulo Castillo. These feel entirely vernacular, not at all self-conscious. It’s a contrast in technique to the exacting web of strokes Bennett builds in her drawings, but a compliment in spirit—the way that Bennett’s process somehow seems to close the distance between the viewer and famous subjects like Cobain, even when he has almost been swallowed by the glare of stage lights and a lens flare.

The Conversations Between the Shows

There are throughlines among all these shows, especially if we reference big concepts like “representation” (of self and other, through media and ritual). But what I really love is how evaluating them in pairs yields interesting connections and tangents.

It’s interesting that in the titles of their respective shows, the artists working with altered images refer to atmospheric forms, rain and air, and the gulf between discrete entities. The Haerizadehs and Rahmanian are more explicitly dealing with the veracity (or lack thereof) in images, while Bennett is more existential about it. They sift through the nostalgia and spectacle to get at something more elemental. The audience is, in turn, challenged to consider the divide between the art object which calls attention to its own contingent, various nature and propaganda (which excludes all interpretations, all responses save for one).

Self and Kuehner’s work are both motley in material and color. Both wrestle with more immediate experiences of otherness, especially regarding the expectations and markers of “femininity.” Kuehner’s performance unravels, from the diffident and demure to the unhinged. Self’s portraits go the opposite way, looking so aggressive at a glance and becoming more tender and complex as one lingers. Meanwhile, Bennett and Self eschew precise, figurative representation in their portraiture, instead relying on distortion and the layering of process and material to evoke a spirit that could not be captured by strict realism. Visually, however, their work could not be more different.

The Frye Art Museum may not be overwhelming in scale, but you can spend hours with these works and still find more to see and say. There are more events to come in April related to the exhibits, for more information, you can check out the Frye website.


Featured image: Installation view of Tschabalala Self. Photo by Jueqian Fang.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.