Two New Shows at the Frye Museum

Conceptual art, art that is created mostly for political consideration rather than aesthetic gratification, has been a dominant force in contemporary art for some time now, and the Frye as well as the Henry have brought many important conceptual artists to Seattle. The recently opened dual exhibition now at the Frye, “The Unicorn Incorporated: Curtis R. Barnes” and “Your Feast Has Ended; Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin, and Nep Sidhu,” are both highly political. Their purpose is primarily “searing social commentary.”

Curtis Barnes, long time Seattle artist, is represented by work that spans five decades. Included are his drawings, paintings, mixed media pieces, and sculpture. As an African American male, he’s interested in the place he and other non-whites hold in American society. That issue dominates his work.

Of particular interest in this exhibition, is a room dedicated to the “Omowale” mural that decorated an exterior wall at the Medgar Evers Pool in the Central District. Barnes and his collaborator Royal Alley-Barnes conceived of the mural, campaigned for the funds to create it, and designed and painted it. The actual work took four years of warm weather work from 1971 to 1974.

“Omowale” is a Yoruba terms that means “children return home.” The home Barnes envisions is a spiritual place where self determination and self-preservation as defined by one’s own terms are possible. Not everyone understood this, and, in 1995 when the mural needed extensive restoration, it was decided not to spend the needed money. The mural, an important piece of history and art, was destroyed. The photos, news clips, and signage in this show remind us of it’s conceptual breadth and provide testimony to its significance.

In “Your Feast Has Ended” Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin, and Nep Sidhu explore myths and ancient concepts. They, a generation younger than Mr. Barnes, are even more focused on the political content of their work. The concept that draws them together is their distaste for the destructive nature of our species, its parasitic quality.

Of the three Nep Sidhu most successfully combines social commentary with visual satisfaction. His massive textile wall hanging, “An Affirmation, as It Was Told by SHE” is a loving tribute to his mother. Its painted image of a woman is surrounded by intricate designs that include beadwork combined with rope, copper and brass elements. The overall effect is spellbinding.

His three large wall constructions are both architectural and literary. Hard-edged, complicated metal pieces of geometric design surround a large square of non-western narration from storytellers significant to the artist. In these pieces his use of color, space, and the combination of forms is brilliant.

Maikoiyo Alley Barnes addresses social and environmental issues with a broad range of materials and methods. His collection of fiber and hide “animal cartoons” in “Pelts” combine iconic western and native elements that appear archetypical but for the creator represent specific individuals and situations.

Nicholas Galanin celebrates his Tlingit culture and addresses environmental issues of concern with sound, video, pelts, and mixed media. “Inert” combines two visions of a wolf. Half is a trophy or rug, and the other half appears to be a live wolf clawing its way back to its natural life.

For each of these artists, the exhibition offers a far greater range of work than described here. If you are a fan of conceptual art, politically infused art, you’ll find much to savor in this show.

Through September 21, at the Frye Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, free admission and parking, (206 622-9250 or fryemuseum.org).

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