What makes a booth at Seattle Art Fair the best? One hears all the time that art is subjective—and it is—especially in this case, one’s favorite isn’t always “the best.”
At Seattle Art Fair 2019, booth designs remained pretty basic with few flashes of wall color here and there. There was no Chihuly “ultra lounge” like Marlborough Gallery presented in 2016. So in evaluating the booths, it’s solely down to the artworks and their placement. Fine by me.
Simyo Gallery‘s raucous display of video art by Lee Lee-Nam is what first that catches the eye. It dominates the walls with the Mona Lisa being bombed into a flower bed by attack helicopters and warplanes to the left. And on the center wall, facing out, a series of screens project a single work—something like a traditional folding screen painting laid flat, with missiles and zeppelins moving between, among animated gifs.
But in the corner is a little shrine of meticulous works on paper and silk by Hae Gee Lee and Hi Yong Lee. The latter creates a ground on the translucent black silk which uses fish glue before applying gold powder to create reclining or seated buddhas. Hi Yong Lee blackens thick paper, rubbing it until it is glossy black but for serene images of porcelain left on the surface. Tucked in their little “shrine” among the tech-driven work, they might appear as an afterthought. Rather, I view them as a smart balance and counterpoint to Lee-Nam’s sensory overload.
Melissa Morgan Fine Art
Tucked in the northeast corner by the fair’s Collector’s Lounge, Melissa Morgan Fine Art brings the spectacle. The gallery has been taking the work of artist Anthony James to fairs across the country. James’ LA-based studio produces monumental sculptures of polyhedrons whose every visible face is an infinity mirror. They are stunning objects, whether you are just ooing-and-ahhing over the visual effect or geeking out over sacred geometry.
There are smaller, wall-mounted pieces by James, too, sharing space with other works that are luminous by reflection. One is a metal foil and acrylic arrangement by Jimi Gleason. Another is a bronze mandorla, whose gorgeous reflection on the floor actually first caught my eye, even more than James’ cluster of works. The gallery doesn’t list names and didactics very openly on the walls and I forgot to get that artist’s name. (I was a little busy peering through space and time.) But this whole booth is a must-see.
After such a strong debut at the fair last year, I was hoping to see Yufuku Gallery again. They had an incredibly diverse display of truly exquisite artworks by contemporary Japanese artists doing amazing things with ceramics and glass. This year, the initial selection they had on opening night didn’t wow me quite as much, but the works remain among the most elegant you will see at the fair, and the display will be evolving.
They do an excellent job of providing detailed didactics about the artists and their methods. The simplicity of the silhouettes of the work belies how incredibly precise and time-intensive the creation is. And the friendly staff are eager to talk over these things, especially if you don’t feel like standing and reading a small essay. All around, it is a personal favorite, but for its pristine, in-depth and coherent presentation, it’s one of the best experiences you can have at the fair.
Barney Savage Gallery
There are no bells and whistles at Barney Savage Gallery. Just big oil paintings on three walls, all by artist Jillian Denby. A lot of galleries will spread the risk (especially in somewhat unfamiliar markets) by bringing group shows to fairs. We don’t see many booths presenting a single artist in so straightforward a fashion, but I’m glad that BSG chose Jillian Denby for this summer fair. These are paintings that deserve to be seen together, not in a hodgepodge.
Denby’s forested scenes require closer examination. It’s easy to appreciate at a glance the way she isolates active scenes (a rugby match, a swimming hole) amid deep, dark foliage. But the more one looks, the stranger the perspectives, situations and compositions become. We are peering from the woods, but never in a way that feels particularly sinister or voyeuristic. Just detached, curious. One feels the presence of past painters, such as Eakins and Fragonard in the poses and gestures, but the presence of the people—however remote they may be—is far more immediate in these strange idylls. That alone is quite the welcome counterpoint to the frantic energy of the fair.
Todd Merrill Studio
Here’s an example of a presentation that is not at all my personal aesthetic, but which one must applaud for its smart choices. Todd Merrill Studio‘s booth should be perfect for Seattle, a town that generally seems more interested in lifestyle and design than art. It’s a town where big corporations try to maintain the sanity of the workforce by decorating offices like adult playrooms. It’s a town where those well-moneyed workers are slow to realize that they are no longer living in dorms, and maybe Ikea isn’t the alpha and omega of their interiors.
The Pacific Northwest is big on its “natural” finishes, patina and minimalism (from both Scandinavian and Asian schools). But that isn’t everyone’s style, and the unabashed blast of color at Todd Merrill Studio’s booth is for everyone who still misses their candy-colored Trapper Keeper, the Memphis design movement, and wishes they could just swing around on a jungle gym without being told they need to go Keto.
To be clear: I actually love the colorful works by Amy Cushing here, and Brecht Wright Gander‘s “Swamp Pet Chandelier” warmed my heart, even though I myself am one of those minimalists when it comes to lighting. And I love how playful and pure the furnishings by Przemek Pyszczek feel in the space. Just because it isn’t for me, doesn’t mean I can’t love it, and I hope that for all the care they put into the booth, others find something that is entirely for them…because I want more of this around.
A Few Personal Favorites
There were three galleries showing work that I loved that didn’t quite meet the rubric I set for myself when making this list. I have to mention them all the same.
I’m a big fan of anything that plays with an embodiment, and Aaron Johnson very effectively pulls leering, ghostly faces from a miasma of wet acrylic. Over the Influence has a great display of small portraits in this style flanked by two large ones that recall the jumble of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Christ carrying the Cross” but even more grotesque.
Mindy Solomon Gallery has a slick selection of works that seem very naive and childish on the first approach. Super Future Kid and Benjamin Cabral work in response to digital formats using “analog” materials (paint and beads respectively). Lynda Draper‘s glazed ceramics are (to use the technical term) batshit kooky, with vaguely organic forms and body parts and turrets mushed together in pareidolic play.
And for the fifth year running, KOKI ARTS is back, with works by Mario Trejo (who has been present in the booth each year) and Ryoichi Nakamura. The back wall of the booth is covered with dozens of individual works by Nakamura—haunting photo emulsions on metal which Nakamura distresses and partially paints over. Unlike many booths, they aren’t fussing with stickers: the works go home with the buyer immediately, meaning the display will thin as the weekend progresses. And Trejo’s work (which has always appealed to me with its obsessive lines and filaments) has never looked more refined. If the fair is still here in 2020, I hope to see KOKI ARTS there again.