Continuing through August 21, 2022
Despite its bigger budget and local institutional partners, the recent Seattle Art Fair wasn't the most anticipated summer event for many in the local arts community. A large pop-up exhibition called “Forest for the Trees” took over an historic building six blocks south of the fair, and ended up being more exciting both as an event and a portent for what is possible in a town that was suffering from cultural inertia even before COVID lockdowns.
“Forest for the Trees” occupies eight floors of the Rail Spur building during its renovation by developer Urban Villages. Each floor featured a different curatorial team, including one led by Axel Void from Cadiz, Spain and another dedicated to Christopher Martin's solo show “Ancient as Time,” which just finished its run at The ICA. Most everything else in “Forest for the Trees” came from artists based in the Pacific Northwest.
Floors seven and eight, still on view, are a package deal, with a large staircase connecting the two, and floor eight largely being a mezzanine opening onto terraces overlooking Elliot Bay. The exhibition here has been curated by XO Seattle, with founders and builders-by-trade Julianne Johnson and Austin Hicks at the helm, and features works by over 80 local artists.
The XO Seattle exhibit is the only part of “Forest for the Trees” to charge admission, and the only part to still be on display, beyond the weekend of the Seattle Art Fair. The dance party and reception on Friday, July 22 sold out, creating a line around the block. Sales cleared $50,000 that night — a tidy sum for an independent operation with most works priced in the low four digits.
The range of artists and art is wide in every sense: career stage, medium, style and price. The eldest artists represented are the late Philip Levine (1931-2021) and Norman Lundin (b. 1938). Levine's spindly bronze works are situated between the dance floor and brightly colored, menacing ceramic sculptures by Priscilla Dobler Dzul. From there, one can look to the far wall at the west end to see Lundin's moody painting of the back of a woman sharing space with an installation of fluorescent acrylic sculptures by Ariel Parrow.
Levine's body of work was often emblematic of human frailty and injustice. His was a quiet, not flamboyant, morality. By contrast Dobler Dzul's “Future Ancestors” are explicitly confrontational, snarling, self-pleasuring — what looks like a personal take on tonalli, the Aztec notion of the spirit’s warm energy. Parrow's work fuses letters such that the installation reads HELLO and THERE at different angles. You can't really read the greeting in the space, but that may be part of the point in a town — and an art scene — that has yet to master the art of hospitality.
These juxtapositions are indicative of one generational shift visible in the XO Seattle exhibit: a movement towards more aggressive, brightly colored, and maximalist works. Pacific Northwest art has long skewed towards the muted and earthy ... at least, the works that get made and displayed here. The reveal is not that the mainstream in Seattle has belatedly caught up with the rest of the world in embracing color and maximalism. Beyond the aesthetic shift, we're seeing something more cultural — and exciting — play out. There is a truly diverse array of styles here that hasn't always been visible in the region, and a sincerity of purpose that feels both refreshing and hard-won.
The pale quietude that predominates in a lot of work shown in the region could be attributed to several factors. A general Nordic and Lutheran asceticism persists in the culture. The long shadow cast by the Northwest Mystics, such as Morris Graves and Guy Anderson, whose influence has persisted in local arts schools. There is also the influence of major corporate collections like Weyerhauser and Microsoft, embracing corporate-friendly abstraction and art that memorialized natural subjects as they were being bulldozed for urban development and the timber industry. Long-time galleries that have bucked this trend either have a location in other markets (Winston Wächter, for example), or grew out of a counterculture with international reach (Roq la Rue’s pop-surrealism most notably).
One might also point out colorful exceptions among artists, particularly in the glass art of Dale Chihuly, his direct proteges, and artists working out of the Pilchuck Glass School in eastern Washington. Outliers are fewer among PNW painters. The 2014 retrospective of Camille Patha's work at Tacoma Art Museum, “A Punch of Color,” explicitly drew attention to her minority status as both a woman and a colorist. There was also Curtis R. Barnes, who was sidelined like many non-white artists, and whose renderings of Seattle's huge jazz underground emphasized the effect of neon light on black skin.
Patha and Barnes would not be outliers in the XO Seattle exhibition, where the volume of vivid and boisterous works edges out the more toned-down Pacific Northwest themes. Artists like Brian Sanchez and Nikita Ares are chiefly colorists working big like Patha, with Sanchez arranging warped color blocks and Ares going fully fluorescent in compositions that are showered with color and patterns. Raw oil pastel sketches on black paper by Adrienne Matthews could party alongside Barnes' work, while a portrait by Aramis O. Hammer is a more fully illustrated celebration of contrast, vivid color, and melanin.
The exuberance extends from the palettes to the overall attitudes at XO Seattle. No doubt, the unapologetic turn to pop culture and color in Seattle's rising generation of artists is fueled by their nativity in virtual spaces. But Seattle remains a bit of an outpost, and the city's conflicted relationship with the broader art world and nearly feral social habits also has a punk sincerity that makes the works hit differently. If something borders on kitsch at XO Seattle, the reference is neither ironic nor naive. It's more, “fuck it, I like this.”
Though the overall quality remained high at both “Forest for the Trees” and XO Seattle, this devil-may-care attitude might come across as unserious in other settings, or it would come with too much self-awareness about its counterculture status. The stakes and the gates aren't that high here, far from the more speculative centers of capital and publishing. And it turns out, dropping the pretense seems to have connected with the crowds, many of whom would be loath to enter a gallery (more out of skittishness than antipathy). Marketing XO Seattle as a chic, ephemeral summer party is a necessary step for a lot of these art world newbies. The organizers are certainly well aware of the power of parties and alcohol to get people to open both mind and wallet; but where the arts are involved, it's often an act of charity.
Therein lies another bit of Seattle history that inadvertently worked against the local arts market. The main culprit was PONCHO, an organization founded to retire a debt for the Seattle Symphony following the 1962 World Fair in Seattle. For its first few decades, the PONCHO Gala was the biggest party of the year, and its auction included luxury items and vacations and even homes built specifically for auction, still known locally as PONCHO homes. Art was always part of the affair, too, but in the late 90s and early aughts the organizers leaned more and more heavily (eventually almost exclusively) on art donated by artists and collectors. Art that didn't sell at auction was not returned, but rather sold at a deep discount in online catalogs.
This hunger for a bargain didn't stop at the auctions; a class of collector was created that pressed galleries for discounts that would have gotten them blacklisted in other towns. Other auctions followed PONCHO's model, and in a town where a secondary market was already thin and geographical isolation already applied a pall of obscurity, the auction circuit further submarined local prices.
PONCHO's last hurrah was in 2013, when it was absorbed as a legacy fund of the Seattle Foundation. Good riddance.
Even with PONCHO's depressive force nearly a decade behind us, many artists and gallerists in the region are still pricing modestly compared to other markets, but they are not being modest about breaking into those other markets and getting more eyes pointed this way. Events like XO Seattle will have a hyperlocal reach, but they may have better odds converting new money into new collecting.
It may seem a bit embarrassing to admit that Seattle really has not, as a whole, had its act together, to the extent that a temporary exhibit and month-long art party could feel like a tipping point. Still, I'm looking on the bright side, to what comes next.
The city has always been an incubator for talent, but its most prodigious young artists often feel pressed to relocate to escape Seattle's self-imposed limitations. Based on what we're seeing this summer, there is an emerging critical mass of artists and curators who have already rejected that narrative and are getting busy.
Back when Seattle real estate and studio spaces were affordable, artists and galleries could flex their scrappy outsider status, be a bit hostile to money, and still live la vie bohème. To its credit, the scene produced and sustained genuine weirdness, but at its core there was always a touch of envy and xenophobia. And heaps of Gen-X irony. (It was, to no one’s surprise, predominantly white, straight, and male.) Worse, it also produced a sort of social parsimony that reveled in scarcity, lacked accountability, and even feared success. The emerging generation has no room for those values, which do not pay the skyrocketing rents and do not work in a virtual landscape built on collaborative self-promotion.
Seattle gets to keep its often wonderful, earthy, subdued artwork alongside more exuberant, media-savvy styles. Dealers and artists don’t need to play it so safe with a nigh-dogmatic regional style. Seattle gets to have tightly curated shows and sprawling art parties in the same building, with everyone hyping each other. Rude factioning was never really the sign of a thriving counterculture, and it no longer has currency as a counterfeit. If Seattle leans into this greater openness, pairing it with that genuine “we do what we like” posturing, the city may keep more talent in place. While I can't be sure that will always lead somewhere interesting, the Seattle art scene at least seems to be more vibrant and excited about itself than it has been in a long time. That is, indeed, reason to celebrate.