Matt Sellars installed himself above the high-tide mark — the supra tidal zone — on West Seattle’s Alki Beach, and collected debris, observed the waterfront, and drew pencil sketches of his experience there. Inspired by this practice, Sellars’ current exhibit offers an unexpected exploration of the nautical landscape, through smooth woods, pencil on paper, and terra cotta. As in the artist’s previous shows the work is finely crafted, with polished surfaces, gentle curves, and an eye toward the environment.
The most striking piece is a spill of dinghies. Forty-seven hand-made terra cotta boats rest in a jumble, as if a large wave deposited the toy-sized vessels inside the gallery door. The power of water is illustrated using this fragile material, in the way that a beach wears the mark of dispersed water in what is left behind. Sellars usually works in sculpture, so his landscape drawings are an unexpected pleasure. His hand is loose, with looping open curves for clouds, and ovals depicting sun on moving water. A seagull is captured in one drawing, while another illustration depicts the port’s enormous mechanical cranes. Organic shapes of craggy rocks are interrupted by the hard right angles of industrial shipping in bridge, boat, and sea wall.
The text on the sketches is journal-like, with a sailor’s affinity for naming the direction of the wind, observing the weather, and remarking on cloud formations. By pulling you into his narrative of beachcombing (in an April that has seen a conveyor belt of storms) Sellars’ text locates you on the beach, through tangible details of discarded plastic, washed-up styrofoam, and throwing tennis balls for his dog. The text acts as a wordy meditation on the view depicted, as well as an access point and excuse to spend a little more time reading each picture.
Atop a series of display boxes are suspended what look like wooden boat parts: a bluish rudder here and a beige submarine snorkel there. With all the beach content in the gallery, one might be forgiven for assuming that these forms represent boats, or boat-parts. They are, instead, meant to be clouds. One might have to consult the wall text or the gallerist to know this, as these poplar sculptures are sharp-edged and strange. They are not the fluffy cumulus clouds that populate the drawings, but tall, stove-pipe-like shapes and flat-topped forms that hover above their stands. The sculptures echo the ships in the drawings, with a mood that encompasses a bit of push-pull. These pieces are simultaneously entrancing and off-putting, in a rather interesting way. They are abstractions of clouds (which are themselves shape-shifters), in the midst of a show that seems to be grounded in solid realism.
Maybe all this weather is not meant to be so idyllic after all. The exhibit opened March 31st, and, after Japan’s enormously destructive tsunami on March 11th, the power of water and weather is an unavoidable aspect of the viewing context. The terra cotta boats are imminently breakable, and the gunmetal grey storm clouds are menacing. It’s the narrative, by way of the drawings, that invites the viewer into a landscape that is more ambivalent than beautiful. I asked the artist if he grew up sailing, and Sellars told me, yes, he had to go sailing with his stepfather. It was not, clearly, the pure pleasure that it might have been. In fact, it is this ambivalence, together with the artist’s long-standing intimacy with the water, that makes this work so compelling.