Arts Reviews

Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power

Bellevue Arts Museum is now offering an exhibition of Kara Walker’s work, especially her phenomenal, provocative, in-your-face silhouettes with their stinging social commentary. If you don’t know her art do get to the Museum before Nov. 27 to be introduced to her genius, and, if you are familiar with her work, go and be reminded of just how powerful her art is.

One of the youngest recipients of the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Genius Award, she delights and disturbs viewers with her images that shine a spotlight on issues of race and gender in the American past and present.

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The Keys to the Coop, edition 39/40, 1997, Linoleum block. 46 X 60 1/2 in. Photo: Courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Although this show contains video, sculpture, and a mural, it’s the stark black silhouettes that most enthralled me, especially the depictions of white plantation owners and their black slaves. She cuts detailed images that mock the stereotypes of both races. They are powerfully funny at the same time that they are effective representations of an evil history and a disturbing comment on contemporary race relations.

As one major collector has said about Walker’s work, “It’s provocative and impossible to view passively.” It does indeed cause the viewer to question his or her own preconceived notions. First you’ll laugh at the image before you, then you’ll be overwhelmed by what it all means.

Walker’s work is in major museums in this country and abroad. How nice to have some of it here, even if only for a short time.

Through November 27, Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, (425-519-0770 or www.bellevuearts.org).

“Bren Ahearn Strategies for Survival” at the Bellevue Arts Museum

What comes to mind when you hear that there’s an exhibition of finely embroidered cloth samplers? Most of us think of needlework done by young girls in previous centuries. Girls were required to sew samplers so that they might learn the important feminine art of stitchery and also learn their alphabet, numbers, and important moral and religious lessons. Charming and beautiful, today these exercises in domesticity and femininity make lovely accompaniments to museum exhibitions or period rooms, but very few young girls maintain this art form. Bren Ahearn, however, keeps the tradition alive.

The samplers by Bren Ahearn show all the precision and artistic merit of those earlier pieces, but his work (yes “his” work for Bren is indeed a man) addresses modern issues and speaks to the fact that needlework need not be the purview of women only. His works are charming, wry, unexpected, and even humorous with their comments on contemporary life especially as it relates to manhood, its expectations and realities.

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Sampler 13 (detail). Photo: Miles Mattison

Most of the 11 samplers on display are large, very large. And although most have beautifully cross-stitched alphabet letters and numbers, it’s their exploration of issues in his own life as a male that resonates. With needle and thread he puts the spotlight on masculinity’s conflicting messages.

I was particularly taken by Sampler 10 about the aftermath of meeting his lover:

He stole back home via the roof
Lost his footing and died in a poof.

And you are sure to want to read the sampler called “The Pussy Chronicle.”

Through Jan. 15, 2017, Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, (425-519-0770).

Treasures and Delights at the Bellevue Arts Museum

Each time I venture across the lake and visit BAM I’m reminded of how much I love that place. Invariably it has a number of exhibits that delight and amaze me. The current selections are among the very best.

Unless you go this weekend you’ll miss Chris Antemann’s amazing porcelain installations created in collaboration with the renowned Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Germany. The highlight is a long panorama of miniature semi-clothed men and women feasting—on each other and tiny varieties of fruits, wines, cakes, and other delights. It’s reminiscent of the decadent and romantic works of the painters Watteau and Boucher. Each figurine is carefully painted; each face reveals sly, coy, or hungry emotions. It’s a mesmerizing miniature world that combines the comic with the historical. You won’t be sorry to make a special effort to get to see it before it closes.

But there’s more, so much more. The largest exhibit is “Inspiring Beauty 50 Years of EBONY Fashion Fair.” Here you’ll find manikins garbed in the most luxurious and beautiful fashions imaginable. I just returned from New York where I visited the Metropolitan Museum’s current fashion show. The Bellevue show is far, far better in all respects. The exhibition was organized by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with the black-owned Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

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Stephen Burrows (United States) Evening dress, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 2007 Rayon jersey Photo: John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society

Eunice W. Johnson, co-founder of the company, initiated the Fashion Fair to bring attention to black designers by showing their work in association with garments by the world’s most highly lauded designers: Givenchy, Balmain, Ungaro, Dior, Missoni, Yves St. Laurent, Blass, you name the haute couture icon and his or her work will be represented in this show.

The fabrics are luscious, opulent, audacious. There are furs, chiffons, silks, taffetas, beaded pieces, jerseys. Sexy sheaths hug the body. Flowing saris and kimonos contrast with sleek metal numbers. The use of buttons will astound you. What is particularly interesting is that even the 50-year-old pieces still look great today, not dated.

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Givenchy by Alexander McQueen (France) Evening dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98 Synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze Appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions Photo: Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

In addition to providing a banquet of beautiful design and materials, the exhibition tells the story of changing attitudes toward race in the past 50 years. Initially designers were hesitant to submit their work to Ms. Johnson, worried that it’s placement in an “Ebony” show would turn white customers away.

Of course it didn’t. What it did was provide a vision of what was possible for African American women. The fashion show was a major event in all the cities it visited. The drama of the runway was accompanied by music. Funds were raised for local charitable causes (more than $55 million for civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships). These were glorious clothes for good causes, and their history is well worth knowing.

And there’s more to see at BAM right now. Don’t miss the Kara Walker show. Her silhouettes challenge and delight. And certainly don’t miss Seth Rolland, the wood artist who appears to do magical things with wood.

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Seth Rolland Dreamcatcher Hall Table, 2016 The base is a single block of wood Photo: Frank Ross

His particular brilliance is “kerfing.” Kerfing is an old, but terribly difficult technique for bending and expanding wood. It makes possible musical instruments such as violins and guitars, and in Rolland’s hands it expands the wood.

By making precise, closely placed cuts in a solid piece of wood, he can create open spaces between each cut. Thus expanded, he fans the piece out to serve as the base for tables, sculptures, and wall hangings. His pieces and their shadows seem impossible to realize. Yet they serve utilitarian needs as well as being art objects.

The final exhibition currently at the Museum is “Atoms + Bytes: Redefining Craft in the Digital Age.” This collection draws on artists from around the world. Sadly, I didn’t have time to see it when I was there. That just goes to prove that BAM has such a wealth of exhibitions with such a diversity of offerings that just one visit isn’t enough. Do check it out.

Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, (425 519-0770 or info@bellevuearts.org).

“Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets at Theatre 9/12

While fortunes amass today in Seattle and elsewhere, this is also a time when those left out of the boom are even more busted than ever. For some it is indeed a return to the 1930s. “Waiting for Lefty” the Clifford Odets 1935 play about striking taxicab drivers in New York explores the fate of the working class in tough times. It is both dated yet remarkably pertinent today, and Theatre9/12’s powerful take on it is bound to move you and certainly cause you to question the system as it works in our time.

Odets, like so many other intellectuals, was a Communist during the Depression years. His hard-hitting social protest plays received much favorable attention and greatly influenced the playwrights who followed.

This production begins on a crowded dance floor where energetic couples are doing the Charleston. The mood is gay, enthusiastic. Then the lights go out. When they come back on only a few couples dance, well not really dance, simply move in an exhausted, almost crippled manner. You quickly understand that this is one of those marathons we read about in history books. Couples subject themselves to this debilitating and demoralizing exercise because there is prize money for the last couple standing, and they all desperately need the money. Jobs are few. Pay has been cut back. Life is hard. There’s no safety net. What better way to begin this thought provoking play?

Director Charles Waxberg has staged it in the round with action in front of, behind and above the audience members thus, immersing them in the goings-on. And by placing the corrupt leader of the taxi drivers union, Fatt (aptly named) and his gun-toting henchman above the rest of the players, their corrosive presence is inescapable.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Theatre 9/12 is known for the quality of its acting and this production is no exception. But amazingly one of the most powerful performers is Michael C. Robinson as Fatt’s henchman. He never says a word. For most of the play he just sits next to Fatt, toothpick dangling from his mouth, eyes alert but veiled, a rifle hung on his shoulder. He personifies evil.

Odets created the play with vignettes that speak to the injustices of the difficult Depression years: impoverished married couples, unethical medical practices, corrupt union leaders, frustrated lovers who can’t afford marriage, soulless capitalism. There’s no subtlety here. The characters are stereotypes; the message is pounded home. It would be written with more nuance today, but this is a piece of theatre history. It’s fascinating to see the agitprop of the ’30s, especially when it is presented so successfully and is so pertinent to contemporary times

Through Feb. 20 at Trinity Parish Hall, 609 8th Ave. and James St., Seattle. For reservations 206 332-7905 or www.Theatre912.com. This show is offered as “pay what you can afford.

“Genius / 21 Century / Seattle” now at the Frye Museum

In recent years, the most avant-garde museum in Seattle has been the Frye. Its transformation from a relatively staid institution to one exploring the newest boundaries of contemporary art and the role of the museum in today’s dynamic society began under the leadership of Midge Bowman who took over in 2003 and has advanced significantly since Jo-Ann Birnie Danzker became Director in 2009.

Both women respect the Frye’s heritage and have capitalized on the original collection as they have united this rich legacy with Seattle’s and the nation’s changing art scene. “The Stranger” newspaper honored the Frye with one of its annual genius awards. And in response to that, the Frye has mounted a museum-wide exhibition celebrating Seattle’s artistic genius in the twenty-first century. The exhibition is a 16-week extravaganza, including more than 40 events, and showcasing the work of more than 60 artists—visual artists, filmmakers, writers, theatre artists, composers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, and arts organizations with special interest in multidisciplinary and collaborative work.

Their offerings highlight the social, political, and artistic modifications that are reworking Seattle and the world around it. Ours is indeed a society undergoing rapid change and growth. What the Frye hopes this exploration will do is stimulate conversation about the evolving environment and show the interconnections between the social factors and the arts that are developing. The Frye is also asking whether this effort to step beyond traditional boundaries is a new model for museums everywhere.

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Jim Woodring. Still from Frank in the 3rd Dimension, 2015. 3D digital video. Pen drawings: Jim Woodring, 3D conversions: Charles Barnard. Courtesy of the artist and Fantagraphics Books

“Genius/21Century/Seattle” is a cornucopia. Its riches spill over gallery walls, the auditorium, the grounds, and into the community. It’s an ambitious undertaking chock full of happenings to challenge the mind and feast the eyes. To suggest the diversity of visual experiences I’ll mention just a few in the following paragraphs.

One of my favorite visual art pieces is the giant 3-D digital video, “Frank in the Third Dimension” by Jim Woodring. It began as a series of humorous depictions featuring Woodring’s anthropomorphic character, Frank. Charles Barnard, a 3-D wizard, fascinated by them, offered to turn the whole work into a 3-D extravaganza, and that’s what we have. Walk into the gallery and watch Frank carry on. Then put on the 3-D glasses the Museum provides and everything pops into dimension. I was mesmerized.

And don’t ask what that weird truck with the superstructure is out in the parking lot. It’s Alex Schweder’s “The Hotel Rehearsal.” It’s the artist’s rendition of a potential portable single room occupancy (SRO). More traditional SRO’s have a long history in Seattle, and given the plight of Seattle’s homeless, perhaps the concept is due a new incarnation.

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zoe | juniper. We were., 2015. Installation and performances. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Mark Woods

Victoria Haven offers “Studio X,” a two channel durational digital video that’s documenting the development, dissolution, and urban transformation in South Lake Union. The footage is taken from her studio windows, a studio that may be a victim of exactly that development.

There are on view a few of the Frye’s most beloved paintings, ones as diverse as “Moulting Ducks” and “Sin” each with a short poem by Maged Zaher. And don’t miss the earthwork that rises on the gravel lot behind the Frye. Called “Thereafter” and created by Lead Pencil Studio it evokes thoughts of Seattle’s regrades, and its landscape in perpetual alteration.

There’s a lot going on here, and the offerings are changing week by week. Check the Frye’s web site to find the activities that most interest you. And remember there is no admission charge and free parking at the Frye.

Through January 10, 2016, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, (206 622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org)