The Only Way Out Is Through

The video frame depicts a roofless building, innards exposed. From a vertiginous, aerial vista above the structure, the viewer descends, penetrating the steel skeleton from top to bottom, to its foundation. A yellow crane pierces the dirt below. Then there’s a glint of something that seems not to belong: a color too bright, too vibrant to be born of this over-worked, over-harvested lot. The view shifts into a field of brilliant blue, upon which floats a rendering of a floor plan for a loft, another fresh condo. Its edges bleed but inside not a bone’s out of place. There’s a polished floor, sunlight streaming through windows, a dining table with a pristine metallic surface slick as a knife. A terrible intelligence creeps between the building’s walls, felt but not seen, feeding on unwitting human fantasies. 

The video, titled “Steal Away,” is one of a dozen works in media, print and sculpture presented by Alex Boeschenstein for his solo show at Glass Box Gallery, Too Many Cunning Passages

Boeschenstein has a particular grasp on the workings of gentrification. His day job is in real estate photography and videography, and Seattle’s development boom informs much of his work. For this exhibition he explores the city’s history, specifically the violent nature of expansion and the problem of a “so-called democratizing mission,” as he writes in the show’s statement, to describe a psychical architecture that relies upon “inflated reality.” The notion of inflated reality is timely, as Americans plunge into realms of unprecedented uncertainty, where links between today and tomorrow are so severely ruptured that that which we considered factual yesterday collapses under scrutiny. The parables of sci-fi enthusiasts and doomsday prophets—paranoid, dystopian visions fueled by anxiety and alternative facts—are plausible in the Trump era. We must wonder: What about America is real? Was America ever real?

Addressing these questions, Too Many Cunning Passages builds on fantastical renderings of Boeschenstein’s own alternative topographies. The gallery’s main rooms are populated with sculptural compositions: videos on monitors propped up with PVC Pipe; area carpets brightly printed with idyllic civic scenes of town halls and greenbelts, reminiscent of board games. Through a glowing screen, sharp, icy plateaus reach for the sky, their slopes sliding in all directions. There are monotype prints on the wall and pasted onto sandwich boards. In one, titled “Deranged Penguin,” a large bird’s cartoonish silhouette wades in the Puget Sound surf, staring off toward the Olympics. The figure is isolated, duplicated and magnified within the illustration, its significance cryptic and encrypted in multiples. 

Upstairs, video of a strange, red land shifts and scoots. A range of pinnacled, fuchsia mountains pulsates on the horizon, up, down, in and out of sight. Broken structures are faintly rendered, resembling buildings at once familiar yet never actualized.

This piece is called “Spite Mound (White Writing),” referencing a term coined from the days of the Denny Hill Regrade. What manifests today as a subtle incline between South Lake Union and Belltown was once a massive hill, one of many ridges weaving through the Elliott Bay’s tidal flats. As the city’s early engineers leveled Seattle’s native landscape into a vision of civic efficacy, some land owners held on to their properties, forcing workers to carve around them. Denny Hill was hauled into the mudflats, leaving a dwindling constellation of houses perched atop stilts and stacks of earth. 

Along with “White Writing,” Boeschenstein presents a half-dozen similar videos paying tribute to such spite mounds. Together they function as a kind of perceived singularity, shimmering spires rising up from flat townships (with imagery echoed on the carpets laid beneath each video) into artificially enhanced skies. When we examine history, reality inverts. Ownership of the spite mounds—along with the rest of occupied Seattle—was in itself an illegitimate reality, the land never rightfully belonging to anyone but the Duwamish. 

Boeschenstein calls his media “3D texturizing.” He programs environments in Unity, an open-source gaming platform. This process of authorship—building worlds from the ground up—adds complexity to his ideas in a way that a representational, cinematic image alone would not. The videos’ surreal imagery is ironically quite literal in form—strings of code coming to life. 

In contrast to these digital presentations is a concurrent series of pen and ink drawings, populated by creature-like totems that crawl across layered, fragmented landscapes: a double-headed wolf, a three-legged albino buffalo that roams the remnants of a continent. They exist almost in a parallel dimension, a flattened, grayed underworld of swirls and lattices encroaching upon the nearby deteriorating civic sphere. Or maybe they’re just the sprawled musings of a madman. In his statement, Boeschenstein touches on the influence of delusion in his work, specifically his experience “waking up to the fact he had capitulated to a bankrupt perspective.” 

Navigating a traumatized mind means receiving a stream of signs and symbols thick with meanings, picking apart the cracks in everything and using them to author a narrative that substitutes for an untrustworthy reality. Too Many Cunning Passages does just that, the underlying anxiety of the unknowable unifying the work’s overlapping themes. As our collective here-and-now rings with anxious questions—Will democracy exist tomorrow? Did it exist yesterday?—Boeschenstein’s pieces don’t soothe or bring us anywhere near a reassuring endpoint. Rather, they offer us a lens with which to confront our crumbling reality. As the traumatized mind already knows, the only way out is through.