Welcome back to On View, a feature exploring current visual arts offerings in our area.
There’s nothing like seeing art in the flesh. It can stir the senses, feed the mind and heal the soul. And with more people vaccinated, it’s a wonderful time to go see art in person. Here are a few visit-worthy exhibitions, chosen because they’ve got great art, yes, but also because they remind us how brick-and-mortar art spaces can play a role in sustaining communities, reflecting identities and expanding our understanding of history.
“Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem”
“Black Refractions” at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum is the must-see show right now. Not only does it gather prime works of art by some really big names (Faith Ringgold, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley and many more), it tells important stories. More than 100 works by almost 80 artists — all selected from the collection of The Studio Museum in Harlem — tell us about art history, Black history and how a museum can help build community.
You can simply move from work to work, marveling at the variety of media and messages. There are 1960s/’70s abstract paintings by key artists such as Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas; 1980s/’90s conceptual photography from Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems; and more recent work in a wide array of media including a big, welcoming neon sign by the acclaimed artist Glenn Ligon.
You can also consider the nuanced curatorial groupings of works that reveal themes and stories, including the history of The Studio Museum itself, which was founded in 1968 by a diverse group of artists and activists who recognized the need to support artists of African descent. From the get-go, the museum offered a groundbreaking artist-in-residence program, providing working space (hence the “Studio” in the museum’s name) for artists including sculptor Chakaia Booker; mixed-media conceptual artist David Hammons; esteemed painters Jordan Casteel and Kerry James Marshall; and the ever-intriguing Wangechi Mutu, who works in painting, sculpture, film and performance.
The place and time for the founding of the museum were highly significant: Harlem has a long history in Black culture and 1968 was fraught with political and social trauma and activism, including the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rise of the Black Power and Black Arts movements.
Several of the works in the current exhibition can be instantly contextualized in the founding era. The title of Barkley L. Hendricks’ iconic painting, “Lawdy Mama,” along with the subject’s halo of natural hair, proclaims its origins as a 1969 expression of Black pride and identity. Fast forward to Titus Kaphar’s 2014 portraits made of oil paint, gold leaf and tar: The urgent calls for equity and representation continue.
The Studio Museum, according to its mission statement, “champions Black artists and diverse audiences and serves as a home for common causes, healing and celebration.” With the museum temporarily closed as its new building is constructed, these selections from its stellar permanent collection have hit the road, like a traveling showcase of its cause.
Through Aug. 15; Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; free, timed entry ticket required; 206-622-9250, fryemuseum.org
On a smaller scale, some of the same issues of identity, healing and social critique can be seen in the show “Queer Imagination” at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington. But perhaps saying “smaller scale” isn’t quite right. While this intimate group show of sparely installed work occupies just three rooms, it pulls from speculative fiction, critical theory and wide-ranging media to explore vast possibilities for self-realization and community building. It’s a weird and wondrous show.
Curator Brittney Frantece, who received the gallery’s 2021 Curatorial Fellowship for BIPOC Graduate Students, has gathered literary and visual work from herself and four other UW artists and scholars: writer Rasheena Fountain, poet Nanya Jhingran, photographer Berette S Macaulay, and illustrator and painter Meshell Sturgis. An intricate, tabletop installation from Portland-based set designer August Oaks is also included. Of the group, Frantece writes, “We work to build a world that can only be accessed through ecstatic means of imagining other existences.”
Indeed, the entire experience of moving through the exhibition is exploratory and revelatory. You travel from a bright white gallery with fragmented works into a “portal” gallery with deep blue walls and beautiful drawings and photographs illuminated by globe lights. Spoken words about bodies and identities and new experiences fill the space. In the background, there is more sound. Music lures you into a cozy, mind-expanding space where a record player spins upbeat and soulful tunes. Books and essays by Ralph Ellison, Octavia Butler and others are strewn across a table, ready to be contemplated. The entire exhibition leads you to pause, think and discover.
Through July 8; Jacob Lawrence Gallery, University of Washington, Art Building, room 132; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 1-5 p.m. Saturdays; free, timed entry ticket required; art.washington.edu/jacob-lawrence-gallery
“Visions of a Makah”
The one-room exhibition at Sacred Circle Gallery within the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park is likewise related to self-expression and community connection, but as a small solo show, it’s a focused example of how one artist blends contemporary artmaking with custom and legacy. “Visions of a Makah” are the visions of Frank Peterson — vivid paintings and carved masks that combine abstraction and figuration in surreal portrayals of Native Northwest Coast figures, symbols and legends.
Peterson, who lives in Seattle and is a registered member of the Makah tribe, has been painting since the 1970s. In his painterly hands, the traditional formline style with its flat ovoids and split-U shapes are further stylized, overlapped or interspersed with naturalistic renderings of faces and scenes. It’s as if the boldly iconic Northwest style has absorbed the modern dreaminess of Marc Chagall through Peterson’s personal and cultural kaleidoscope.
Radical recomposition and adaptation are, in fact, part of Indigenous history. Next to the Sacred Circle Gallery is a gift shop where a wall of archival photographs reminds us of the history of Daybreak Star, which was born out of the persistent activism of Indigenous communities. The peaceful occupation — organized by Bernie Whitebear (Colville) and others — of the decommissioned Fort Lawton military base resulted in the reclamation of 20 acres of the land to Native peoples and the opening of Daybreak Star in 1977.
Be sure to wander around Daybreak Star to take in its permanent collection of Native art, which includes some fantastic wall panels, masks and baskets.
It’s also worth noting that Sacred Circle has recently opened a new gallery and gift shop in Ballard, the goal of which, in addition to increasing revenue, is to raise awareness of Sacred Circle, Daybreak Star and their parent organization: the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. This growing network of activity demonstrates, once again, the vitality and importance of cultural spaces.
Through June 30; Sacred Circle Gallery, Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, 5011 Bernie Whitebear Way, Discovery Park; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; free; unitedindians.org/arts-culture/sacred-circle-gallery