The Stranger Takes Over the Frye

Branding exercise or not, new commissions make this a worthwhile show.

Regardless of quality, the individual artist always gets lost—should get lost—in a good group show. What matters more is the strength of the patron, promoter, curator, or conceit. You can have a clear historical category, like the Impressionists now at SAM. Or you can try to craft a thesis—say, how notions of Freud and the subconscious led to Abstract Expressionism during the postwar era. But there’s generally an argument made, a position being advanced. Critical boundaries are staked out. Which brings us to the Frye’s newly opened show Genius/21 Century/Seattle , comprising some 65 locals bestowed with a Genius Award by The Stranger from 2003 to last year.

Now The Stranger and Seattle Weekly are supposed to be dread enemies. Yet I accept the show’s self-aggrandizing origins, the self-validation inherent in the Genius awards. If this show further helps The Stranger’s brand, fine—that’s what every smart newspaper needs to do during these twilight days of print. The New Yorker has its festivals; we have Voracious and Best of Seattle. Journalism is a business, after all, and my job is to celebrate good art where I see it. That TheStranger claims these disparate artists as its own, wrongly; that a label, “genius,” is not the same as a reasoned critical judgment, has little bearing on this highly variable but worthwhile show.

The Frye and its two lead curators are upfront about the association. “Erika [Dalya Massaquoi] and I did not pick the art in this show,” says Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. They’ve outsourced the job, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Like the museum’s #SocialMedium show last year, for which the public selected favorites from its collection, this is a way to chase an untapped demo that generally shuns museums, concert halls, galleries, indie cinemas, and so forth. Desperate times call for populist measures.

But apart from The Stranger’s and the Frye’s evident self-interest, does the exhibit serve the artists? And does it reward the spectator? To the first question, what matters is the opportunity to create something new. The value lies in the fresh commissions funded by the Frye, 25 in total, about a dozen presently installed in the museum’s galleries, with filmic, theatrical, musical, and dance happenings to follow.

For instance, the dance duo zoe | juniper’s We were is a pleasantly immersive video projection of past performances on five dangling, beaded silos/scrims. You can walk around them, almost like circulating on a dance floor in search of a partner. It’s cool, musical, but also archival—a documentation of prior process. All artists are in love with their old notebooks (dance diagrams are chalked on the walls), while the audience wants to see choreography performed live, not on video. Which zoe | juniper will do, so wait for that.

More successful is the softly inviting installation SonicArchiTextile. Textiles and a Ishmael Butler soundtrack (Ecdysis) commemorate the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. Nep Sidhu’s colorful hanging tapestries—also presented in the round—remind you of the bright, optimistic African national flags following colonial independence. (Traces of Islamic art and calligraphy are also evident.) The ambient music makes you yearn for couches where you might lie down and close your eyes. The political component is vague, but it’s a welcome gallery to chill and contemplate.

Urban change and Seattle’s booming economy are on everyone’s mind. In Studio X, Victoria Haven documents on video the cranes and construction outside her doomed South Lake Union studio. The images will update through January, but they’re already old news. It feels like a random Facebook feed that fails to engage cause or effect—or assign blame.

With considerably more graphic punch, SuttonBeresCuller’s You Always Leave Me Wanting More has big red arrows erupting from the gallery floor, bedecked in lightbulbs suggesting carnival funhouse signs. Upward growth becomes an obscene gesture, and part of the ambivalent appeal is that we—like all carnivalgoers—love the action and excitement, even as the thrusting arrows threaten to pierce the ceiling and ruin the museum. It’s obvious, but with a bright Pop-Warholian melancholy: We can’t resist the thing that will destroy us.

That notion of relentless, irresistible growth—there’s your curatorial theme, or it should be—is expressed most clearly and cogently by Lead Pencil Studio. Inside the museum, three large black-and-white drawings depict the erosion and destruction of our familiar cityscape. Sinkholes, building foundation pits, and eerie construction lights are the new markers of a city in transition—what LPS’ Annie Han calls “the new American landscape of parking lots” and building sites. In a fundamental sense, to build is to destroy.

Thus my favorite work on view, also by LPS, located in a gravel lot just outside the museum. Thereafter is a big dirt mound, topped by some pavement and a streetlight, recalling the final remnants of the Denny Regrade during this city’s last great boom. Was razing a hill to create the flat future Belltown a stupid idea? Of course, yet everyone was on board with it at the time. Thereafter thus functions like a rebuke and a reminder of such hubris. Han and partner Daniel Mihalyo designed the thing to slump, erode, and degrade during the fall rains (if there are any). Even as this city is sprouting ever upward in SLU and beyond, our dour old climate discourages such optimism.

First we had the Alaska gold rush, then Boeing and the WWII boom. Today it’s Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks. Those are the brands that will endure over the next century. What the self-appointed tastemakers of The Stranger (or the Weekly) now say won’t matter then—if we still exist. And who among these artists and institutions will last? Sherman Alexie, maybe. PNB will still be around; not Scarecrow Video. The Frye, I hope.

So to the question above—does this show work for today’s visitor?—I’d say yes to the parts, no to the whole. The Genius list simply doesn’t reflect any unique critical judgment on the part of the paper (or the museum). It’s both random and familiar. If you asked me—or my counterparts at the Times—to name 65 notable Seattle artists and institutions, the roster wouldn’t look much different from The Stranger’s (which oddly excludes SAM). There’s only so much talent in this town, and we all keep covering the same names again and again and again—until they leave Seattle in search of lower rents or bigger markets. See them now, before they’re gone.

Brian Miller is Arts Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at or 206-467-4372.

FRYE ART MUSEUM 704 Terry Ave., 622-9250, Free. 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun. (Open to 7 p.m. Thurs.) Ends Jan. 10.

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