Dirge and Dream: ‘Genius’ at the Frye

Jim Woodring’s Frank in the 3rd Dimension offers visitors a romp through a bizarre, retro-cartoonish landscape of hand-drawn pen and ink images rendered in 3-d

For the past 13 years The Stranger has bequeathed the title of genius—along with a sizable cash prize award—to a handful of Seattle artists or arts organizations cherry-picked by the staff. The list of recipients includes luminaries like writer Rebecca Brown, Greg Lundgren’s Vital 5 Productions, On the Boards, artist D.K. Pan, director Megan Griffiths and Frye Art Museum itself. To celebrate the collective talent, the Frye has launched a massive exhibit wrangling old works and commissioning new ones by more than 60 local artists. Along with a visual-arts exhibit, over the next couple of months there will be over 40 performances and events at the museum. The scope of the show is sprawling, messy. “It’s too big to fail,” teased the museum’s marketing director, Jeffrey Hirsch.

Despite the gusto, you won’t necessarily encounter many embodiments of mind-boggling “genius” art here. (It’s probably better to just walk past the exhibit’s title. Hyperboles like “genius” have been thrown around in the arts for so long they lack substance. Then again, I was nominated as a Genius back in 2012 and was ultimately not awarded the title, so there’s a chance I’m jaded.) Instead, the Frye offers a generous and fascinating cross-section of Seattle’s recent art history—a retrospective glance, through the lens of its artists, at what the city has been and is becoming. While the voices are myriad, the tone is unified: A haunting sense of nostalgia and memory pervades.

Right off the bat, visitors are met with a two-channel video feed by Victoria Haven. Studio X documents the transforming landscape of the city as viewed out the windows of her South Lake Union studio—the latest in a string of studios she’s been forced to vacate due to construction. She’s currently the last standing resident in her building. The view consists of a forest of orange backhoes scraping away at the earth as a field of foundations is laid for condos. The Space Needle looms cartoonishly in the distance.

Another video projection by D.K. Pan, Tsunami Capable Tide Stations > West Coast, stitches together sped-up, one-minute videos of ocean waves rushing in along the coastline at 38 sites designated as tsunami tide stations. Filmed at sunset, the film’s dreaminess is cut through with foreboding. Little fishing boats peppering the sea bob like helpless toys waiting to be tossed under an imminent surge.

Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio provide two components of the show, both breathtaking in scope. Three black and white charcoal drawings fill one gallery (each is huge; the two largest measure 93 inches across). In them, gaping, dreamy urban landscapes are sketched out, fantastical blueprints for digging below the asphalt skin of the city. Starbursts of milky white ink float over streetlights like spectral corona. Their other piece, Thereafter, lives outside the museum, in the naked gravel lot behind the building. For it they piled up a mountain made of displaced dirt taken from multiple areas in Seattle that are currently being mined for soil. Anchored in the middle of the heap, a street light hums with a faint glow, even in broad daylight.

As an outdoorsy counterpiece, on the other side of the museum in the parking lot proper, Alex Schweder’s The Hotel Rehearsal launches skyward, basically an apodment perched on a scissor lift. The tiny, mobile, inflatable hotel room, encased in clear plastic windows, rises into the air or collapses at will into a van. Schweder’s early art career in Seattle was marked by stints in diminutive, semi-transient spaces like the Publix Hotel and his piece nods to inflated rents and a housing crisis that clouds working artists with the perpetual threat of homelessness.

Toward the end of the exhibit, a series of woodblock prints by Jeffry Mitchell hangs in the long hallway. One primary image repeats: The outlined figure of a supine Snoopy, lying on his doghouse, gazing up at a splotchy indigo sky dappled with blushes of pink. In some images the character is surrounded by cartoon flowers with bubbly petals; in others, Mitchell placed his handprints directly on the paper. The prints float in the black frame against a gloomy, gray background.

“They gave me total freedom with this show,” he said. “It was freedom to go to a dark place, and I appreciate that.”

One of the few not-dark rooms in the museum is the handiwork of trio SuttonBeresCuller, who planted nine tractor-red, upward-thrusting arrows into a shredded gallery floor. The arrows of You Always Leave Me Wanting More pulse with white-hot bulbs that continually pump light upward, like so many red-blooded cocks aching to break through a metaphorical glass ceiling. Their sleek, carnival cheer is muddled by thinly veiled undertones of institutional upset and the threat of literally tearing the museum to pieces. (Full disclosure: Ben Beres is my boyfriend.)

Along with the big-guns installations, videos and prints, the museum is lacquered in quieter literary pieces commissioned by the likes of Sherman Alexie and Valerie Curtis-Newton. Maged Zaher has penned short poems in response to paintings from the Frye’s permanent collection; they are mounted to the wall alongside classics like Franz von Stuck’s Sin:

I am one of the seduced
One painting layer after the other
The guards are not there
Just us – and the hundred other men
Who are as into you
As this snake

Some videos and compositional pieces have yet to be completed and will be unveiled over the course of the coming months. Hirsch promised a forthcoming website complete with interviews, video, podcasts and a full list of coming events and performances.

The sum of all these Seattle vibes is a tad melancholic, threaded with no shortage of manifestoes, archives and hesitant dreaminess as a means to combat getting lost in our near future. As C. Davida Ingram discussed the meaning behind her Avatar: Fanon & Decca, she didn’t hesitate to offer a prescription. The video features four black women dressed in bright white gowns, with ivory nails and white beekeeping veils. They slowly and ceremoniously ascend a spiral staircase, climbing the clock tower of King Street Station, then filing out onto its exterior. They fan out along its ledge—angels, ghosts—looking out across the cityscape. An airborne drone circles the glass-checkered peak, filming them from afar, panning outward. 

“I don’t think we’re going to rehabilitate this world until we form connections between people,” she says. “This image is for me one of radical psychic healing.” 

Genius / 21 Century / Seattle is on view through Jan. 10.

Photos by Bruce Clayton Tom.

Editor’s note: The orginal version of this preview included the word “gargoyles” along with the “angels, ghosts” in the description of the video by C. Davida Ingram. Feedback from members of the community, including the commenters below, revealed a lack of awareness on our part about the full meaning and racial implications of that word. We recognize that our unintentional failure to see to this meaning has had hurtful consequences. We regret the oversight and appreciate the feedback. —Leah Baltus