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When I first learned—now three years ago—that Seattle would be home to an art fair with world-class galleries, my heart started racing, not just because this was a slick, top-down attempt to inject more art-market validity into Seattle, but because it was a chance for the city’s art scene to flex its muscles at the international art world. When the inaugural Seattle Art Fair arrived, the excitement was palpable in the aisles between the booths. But it wasn’t until strolling between the white plaster walls in King Street Station for the 2015 debut of Out of Sight, the sprawling satellite art fair and survey of Pacific Northwest art, that my excitement blossomed into near-euphoric astonishment at the quality of local work.
The 2017 iteration of Out of Sight is curated by Greg Lundgren, S. Surface, Justen Siyuan Waterhouse and Benedict Heywood with help from Scott Lawrimore and Holly Palmer, and set for the first time in the historic Schoenfelds’ Building just off Occidental Square.
The departure from King Street Station—the exhibition’s home for two years—might have initially seemed a setback, but the new location proves otherwise. Transformed by countless hours of gutting and renovating, it comprises an interconnected labyrinth of galleries stretched out over three stories, including a chilly, spacious basement. Even the bathrooms are filled to the rafters with art—the whole thing a gargantuan cabinet of wonders.
Let’s start with the smallest rooms. Literally: Artists Ben Beres and Jed Dunkerley took sharpies to the walls of a small bathroom on the ground floor, channeling visual stream-of-consciousness to spray a maelstrom of imagery across every inch of the space. In another bathroom, the light coming off the screen of a grainy video of people in a bathhouse—a piece by Dan Paz—installed over the sink eerily illuminates the walls. The hall leading to the bathroom is swathed in a mural by Lauren Boilini: Bands of golden-brown snakes slither and writhe underfoot.
The snake returns in a darker, arresting mural by Ryan Feddersen. Her black snake, a metaphor for the Dakota Access pipeline, weaves through knots of dolphins, fish and birds inching dangerously close to cars and consumer detritus made of plastic. Around the corner, visitors crouch to enter a small room—perhaps once a storage space—where Junko Yamamoto has lined the walls and ceiling with soft fabric that swaddles you like a cushioned cocoon, lit with lights in blood-orange and cool green.
Striking a completely different note, Neon Saltwater transformed another space into a surreal, hypercolor hotel room dotted with IKEA-furniture and plastic plants. From the walls to the comforter, floor and bedside table: Everything is bathed or lit from within by sizzling green and baby blue. It manifests a surreal limbo, conjuring feelings caught between nostalgia for American motels and post-consumerist futurism. But it’s the smell more than anything—a tropical Febreze scent on steroids—that makes viewers want to both edge away and return for another whiff.
Out of Sight 2017 is bigger than ever, with more than 270 works. Natalie Krick’s sun-dappled photos and digital trompe l’oeils prickle the skin. Nadia Ahmed’s “Emotional labor,” consisting of vials of tears that have been priced and indexed at hourly minimum wage, is the show’s most modest but possibly most effective piece, a dual attack on head and heart. Meanwhile, Ellie Dicola’s interactive online media project “crazy 4 u” presents a visual puzzle. The collage of disparate cut-and-paste phrases, quotes and imagery of cats weaves a wry tapestry of pop-culture messaging that undercuts and highlights the ingrained stigma surrounding mental health and the misuse of the term “crazy.”
Barry Johnson’s portraits of men in profile, set against bubblegum pink or baby-blue backgrounds, leave us yearning for what’s left unseen. Johnson [disclosure: Johnson also works for City Arts] omits the most intriguing parts, leaving faces out of frame, or at times literally veiled by objects like a folding fan that’s been affixed directly to the canvas. Cutting across a cavernous room with a bay of tall windows, San Francisco collaborative duo FEMAIL (Janelle Abbott and Camilla Carper) roll out a rainbow-colored carpet below a parade of orange, yellow and blue amorphous creatures made of found materials like sunglasses, flippers and cast-off garments. Punctuating galleries peppered with spectacle are moments of gentle protest, including the soft dents in the woven paintings by Jovencio de la Paz, or the films of Sky Hopinka, Nicholas Galanin, Tracy Rector and Inye Wokoma, which incisively and gorgeously tackle topics of identity, ancestry and use of land.
Walking through FEMAIL’s confounding totems, the barrage of media displays, or the installation of bold-type faced chromosome-ceramics by Caroline Earley and Kate Walker that depict summer camp scenes touching on coming-of-age nuances of gender identity—I felt like a kid in a brightly-colored candy store, buzzed on art and ideas.
Despite the relentless banquet of work and concept, the exhibit doesn’t feel overcrowded or messy thanks to small curatorial surprises and moments of respite. In a bright, white-painted room, Portland-based artist Lisa Radon creates one such refuge. Radon, whose practice integrates and emphasizes the color white (to such an extent that she has dressed exclusively in white-colored clothing for the past five years), has created a caesura in a space at once denuded and blank. A negative ion generator is mounted to one wall. She calls it “a mechanical version of the effect of beaches and waterfalls on people.”
Often, people discredit art fairs as soulless, referencing their impetus to sell. While that perspective isn’t necessarily inaccurate, Out of Sight continues to offer an alternative to the (for many) off-putting commercial vibes of an art fair (even though all the works at Out of Sight are for sale). Out of Sight is most successfully taken in as a whole, conceptually and materially interweaving. Like their makers, the works are all over the place. Big and bright, quiet, loud, political or plainly surrealist, they (re)present a spectrum of bodies, experiences, private parts, colors, cultures, queerness and genders, all radiating one thing: lust for life.
All photos by Bruce Clayton Tom