What Part of 'Spatial Inquiry' Don't You Understand?

Lead Pencil Studio will confound and illuminate at Lawrimore.

If only Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo would simply wrap the Space Needle in polyamide fabric, it would make their work a lot easier to describe. Instead they trekked out to the Columbia Plateau and re-created—to scale, no less—a mirror image of the interior space of a rural classical museum, using scaffolding and blue netting. It was an attempt to make people see what they normally overlook: the inner space of a place. What do you expect from two visionary artist/architects who describe the main focus of their work as "spatial inquiry"? This fascination with intangibilities and perception informs their work and has earned the team—aka Lead Pencil Studio— a growing reputation for intelligent and challenging artistic forays, as well as keen architectural design. In May, Han and Mihalyo will present a survey of their work at Lawrimore Project, along with a new installation that's "all about light," according to gallery owner Scott Lawrimore: "Cast light, indirect light, false light, shadows, reflections, pure light, etc.," he writes in an e-mail. "What I've seen thus far in mock-up and sketches, it appears as though they're using string and other synthetic (plastic?) fibers . . . to delineate paths and acts of light throughout the gallery." If that sounds a little hazy, don't look for further enlightenment from the artists. "The tricky thing about the installation is that it's not possible to show or describe until it's done or close to being done, at least the works we make," the pair write in an e-mail. "The basic parameters are outlined, but the specifics occur during the process." The exhibit will also include a survey of the duo's past works, Lawrimore says, so for those who don't know them already, this'll be a good opportunity to catch up with what Lead Pencil Studio's been up to. It was an installation at the Henry Art Gallery in winter of 2005 that first brought the team to many people's attention. For 150 Works of Art, Han and Mihalyo took 150 random paintings off the walls of the Henry, mounted each on a generic plywood backing with the piece's date, artist, and title stenciled on the back, then stood them on stands throughout the vast Stroum Gallery. Visitors could wander through this forest of paintings and view them from the front, or from behind as a noncommittal catalog of art. Name. Title. Year. That's all you really need to know, isn't it? Of course, those facts tell you almost nothing about a work of art. And that was one of the pointed ironies of the display. In the adjoining gallery, Han and Mihalyo hung strips of white plastic, creating two protruding rectangular forms. Artificial grass poked out from the ceiling. This installation, Minus Space, was the team's effort to acknowledge the history of the space, to give form to what was lost in the art museum's 1997 redesign—the hill that was cut away, the grass that used to be there. Without an explanation, one might think, "Utter madness." While 150 was a cool way to bring together an odd assortment of sometimes so-so paintings and show off the designers' edgy aesthetic, Minus Space was frustrating, esoteric, delicate, difficult to explain: In other words, it was truly Lead Pencil. This is the sort of thing Han and Mihalyo are more likely to do when left to their own devices. The Korean-born Han, 39, and Washington native Mihalyo, 36, met as architecture students at the University of Oregon in 1991 when they both chose to study Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Something clicked. "There was just this excitement of being, talking, and making work together," says Han. Or as Mihalyo puts it: "I thought she was hot!" (Their partnership extends to their private lives.) When an opportunity came to redesign a Goodwill building in exchange for free rent, the two students took it. In 1997 they formed Lead Pencil Studio—a deceptively simple name that belies the elaborate visions that spring forth from their shared sketch pad. Since then, they have designed and built their own modern house in the Central District, with steel-panel siding and porthole windows, and transformed an old sign factory into Scott Lawrimore's stylish new gallery space—a cool blend of industrial and natural elements, with soiled concrete floors, renewable bamboo, and windows slicing the outdoor views into interesting angles, that acknowledges the irreverence of the owner. Included in the design is a tampon disposal—or "readymade" as the Duchamp-admiring Lawrimore fondly refers to it. Art trio SuttonBeresCuller, who helped build the gallery, happened to have it in their trove of odd treasures and offered it to the designers. "They asked us what we thought if it. We thought, 'Great!'" says Han, who incorporated it into Lawrimore's reception desk. But it is their pure artistry that separates Han and Mihalyo from other merely inspired architects. There is a visionary sophistication to their work that reaches forward, like an ice ax thrown ahead to gain purchase in a great vast unknown. There is a sharp intelligence at work and, sometimes, stunning beauty. As an architectural design enterprise, LPS already made a name for itself with its sleek designs and probing investigations of spatial definition. If that sounds a little abstract, well, it is. They are fascinated with taking abstract concepts of empty space, previous space, and making it tangible, visible. As a result, they are often chasing phantoms, giving corporeal definition to shadow, light, and space within a structure—minus the defining shell. As architects, they design and build solid structures, of course, but as conceptual artists, they work in a very different realm. Another of their more successful installations was created for Belltown's Suyama Space in 2004. Linear Plenum was a gentle curtain of 19,000 green and white monofilament lines strung from the ceiling to the floor. Any light projected onto it made it dapple and glow, creating a box both solid and fragile. Maryhill Double, on the other hand, was their largest and craziest project to date. Constructed in summer of 2006, it was indeed a full-scale replica of Washington's Maryhill Art Museum, the austere folly of Seattle Quaker Sam Hill, on the Columbia Plateau in Oregon. Han and Mihalyo located their version across the Columbia River from the actual museum. They will include a video documenting the ambitious project in their spring show at Lawrimore. At the moment, they are keeping busy with museum shows in San Francisco, North Carolina, and Idaho and designing two office spaces, two houses, and an installation in a 20,000-square-foot space. They are also team members on four 25-story towers and are writing an article for Arcade magazine. Not all of their work is as vast as their Columbia Gorge exploit. In a smaller piece from 2002, Inversion I, they created a 3-D rendering of the mad crosshatching of a detailed sketch of a building—out of 5,000 short pieces of rebar tie wire, welded together and suspended in midair. It gave them new ideas for their collaboration, and is also quite fantastic. speters@seattleweekly.com

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