Q&A with Scott Lawrimore

On Thursday news broke that Scott Lawrimore was appointed Deputy Director, Collections and Exhibitions, at Frye Art Museum. In many ways it’s a perfect match and we’ll have to forgive Lawrimore for shuttering his much-loved and influential Lawrimore Project, which he founded in 2006. Here are some of his thoughts about curating, Seattle and some of his favorite things…

How would you describe the evolution of curatorial practice and where you fit in?
A brief history of the changing roles a curator has played in the last 100 years that I’d like to think informs my practice could go like this:  agitator (Tzara) >> accomplice (Breton) >> provocateur (Duchamp) >> educator (MacAgy) >> conductor (Hopps) >> philosoph (König) >>  philomath (Hultén) >> catalyst (Szeemann) >> archivist (Enwezor) >> political body (Bonami) >> custodian (Celant) >> advocate (Obrist) >> “organic intellectual” (Birnbaum) >> public intellectual (Oguibe) >> organizer (C. David) >> auteur (Hoffmann) >> impresario (Cattelan, Subotnick, Gioni) >> utopian (Nesbit) >> caretaker (Meta Bauer) >> etc.

At Lawrimore Project I probably erred on the side of “impresario” or “provocateur.” In my new role at the Frye I hope to defy those expectations of me and become more of an “organic intellectual” [Gramsci]. I’d like to think that I’ll continue to be an “accomplice” to the artist though. I think that trait is what I share with Frye Director, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. As art and the world change, so too must the curator. What I admire about Jo-Anne is that she is always asking the difficult questions—of art, of institutions, of her own role—no matter whether it’s a seemingly staid historical exhibition or a hot mess of contemporary intervention. I think Jo-Anne and I share an affinity for the unorthodox artist and exhibition and will continue to seek out that which forces us to rethink everything we do concomitant with the art, context and occasion. It will always be about who we choose to work with—the accomplices—and how far they push us to question the folds of our own practice. All that said, in the end I would hope that my curatorial epitaph would read very simply, “He continued the artwork” [Proust].

How did you end up in Seattle? And do you find anything particularly interesting about the dialog or production of work in the Northwest?
After grad school I identified San Francisco and Seattle as the two cities I wanted to live in on the west coast. I tried San Francisco and it didn’t jibe with my trailer park cum BMX racer cum Duchampian cum Poststructuralist upbringing. I came to Seattle in 1996; my first job was dusting Chihulys at Foster/White for $7 an hour (thanks Master’s Degree in Art History! Thanks Dale for being dusty!). I gradually worked myself up the gallery ladder until there was nowhere higher to go beyond Kucera, so I threw the ladder away (Wittgenstein) and started building my own.

In terms of describing this part of the country artistically, I suppose I could go down the “pioneer spirit!” path [Jens Hoffmann], or subscribe to “outlaw/hero myth!” sociology [Leo Frobenius], or agree with more simple, local, historical takes: “the craft!,” “the light!,” “the influence of the east!,” etc., but none of those seem totally appropriate right now. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, ahem, that northwest artists are “mossy” — they thrive in dark, damp locations, tend to grow close together in clumps, and are firmly fixed to a place due to slow spread rates.  These are precisely the reasons why I too am devoted to the region and committed to serving its artists. Like moss growing on the side of trees and in the cracks of sidewalks, much of what is great about the northwest is ad hoc, d.i.y. and happens on the margin. From SOIL, Punch, Flatcolor, Ghost, Blindfold, Bherd, Object and Vermillion to SeaCat, TARL, Vignettes, Season, NEPO House, The Project Room, LxWxH, La Norda Specialo, and Violet Strays, some of the most exciting “clumps” in Seattle are artist-driven and tend to be institution and gallery adjacent.

If pressed, what’s your favorite thing (artwork) to spend time with?

The conjugally-correct response is my wife, Yoko. She’s a complicated, ever-rewarding, hard-edge abstraction. But, if pressed, I would say Matt Browning’s “Tradition as Adaptive Strategy” (2010). I look at it every day. It is a small, funnel-shaped, whittled sculpture filled with pine sap the artist gathered.  It may take a decade to produce a single drop. It is a humbling reminder to be patient but ever flowing. If we’re talking about a piece I’d like to spend more time with, it would have to be Anri Sala’s “Long Sorrow” (2005). I first saw this with Isaac Layman, Yoko and Michael Van Horn in Miami. Sitting on the floor in a darkened loading dock converted to screening room, we were all in tears at the end and couldn’t quite explain why. (Its title should have given us a clue.)  

Favorite work in the Frye’s collection?
Lament is apparently becoming a theme here…Prior to the Anri Sala waterworks, I broke down standing in front of Friedrich August von Kaulbach’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Family,” c. 1910 as it hung opposite Dario Robleto’s “An Instinct Toward Life Only A Phantom Can Know” during Robleto’s heart-rending exhibition at the Frye.  That room was cripplingly filled with sadness for me. The Kaulbach, in Dario’s context, made me liken Charles and Emma Frye’s childlessness with my own. 

You recently asked the question “do you believe in the image?” to myself and a handful of artists you showed at your final Lawrimore Project exhibit. I was surprised at how much such a simple question provoked me. Do you believe in the image?
My belief is somewhat anti-eschatological. I only believe in images that “share in the world’s renewal” [Hilde Hein] (these are few), never in those that believe they are ends in and of themselves (these are many).

(Photo credit: Yoko Ott)