Saturday, January 2, 2010

Seattle Art 2009: Last Year's Best

by Stephen Cummings

Trying to find good art tends to mean wading through at a lot of crap. Ok ok, maybe 'crap' is too harsh. (But not always.) Let's go with Dan Britton's phrase: "a veritable sea of mediocrity." Fortunately though, there are those rare gifts that bubble to the top and make all the year's searching worthwhile. Here's what stands out from Seattle's exhibition scene in 2009, a smattering of artists, shows, and individual works, in no particular order.

Eric Elliott

Eric Elliott, Ficus, 2008

His show at James Harris may have gotten Art in America's attention, but I prefer the work from the Tacoma Biennial. There was something slightly awkward about those little paintings that seemed to have tempered in the more recent show. No matter though. Elliott's paintings manage to be alluring even at the times they fall a little short. (How does he do that?) Each is a fascinating play of surface, image, and atmosphere, built with obsessive consideration. These are paintings that'll make you want to paint, and glaring examples of why you can't just look at art in books.

Gala Bent

Gala Bent, Party Pooper

She was also in that biennial. And flew solo at 4Culture. And was in that thing at SAM Gallery. Basically, Gala Bent kept popping up everywhere. And those weird whimsical watercolors do grab your attention. I don't know what world these images come from, but improbable arrays of hair and geometric conglomerations featuring odd creatures in bright yet modest colors prove there's something to be said for the fantastic — and the naked pencil line.

Oh, and she had a Stranger cover too.

Tim Roda: Recent Photographs

Tim Roda, #163, 2008

Speaking of crazy fantastic. (That's 'fantastic' in the imaginationland sense, not the woo-hoo! sense, by the way.) This series of photographs at Greg Kucera Gallery recalls those crazy orientalist paintings by the likes of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Jean-Léon Gérôme, except these are a lot more crazy (and not so haughty-imperialist naive). My only complaint about the show was the unnecessarily craggily cropped prints. It's as though Roda didn't trust the work to be unruly enough on its own, so he decided to make it literally rough around the edges. Lame. That aside though, the tension of quasi-disturbing meets playful innocence is really something to see. And that he can achieve the same effect through both elaborate costuming and design, and pure value composition, is all the more impressive.

Partly How Things Grow Cold

I hesitate to come right out and say it, but this was maybe the best. Ben Waterman's installation in the University of Washington CMA Gallery was a baffling arrangement of constructed platforms, video, and dirt. So baffling, in fact, that it was difficult to tell where the work began and where it ended. Could it be the recorded event, the installation, the gallery talk were all one and the same piece? Waterman, I think, likes to blur those lines. Or maybe he just finds the distinctions irrelevant. One thing is clear though: anyone who heard Ben Waterman speak that night, was in the presence of something exceptional.

Bob Yeaw: BFA Exhibition

Bob Yeaw, vessels, 2009

In the same gallery, a few months later, Bob Yeaw invited guests to have a drink. Described as a connoisseur, Yeaw clearly takes pleasure in the things he does, in this case, using his exhibition of gorgeous ceramic vessels as an opportunity to provide hospitality — in the form of fine barbecue and scotch — to everyone in attendance. A not uncongested affair, it still managed to remain intimate. Blame the rigorous attention to detail for making it possible.

Alexander Calder: A Balancing Act

Excruciatingly dull title notwithstanding, this had to be the best museum show of the year. I've already written fairly effusively on the subject, so I won't say much, but it was refreshing to see something this substantial at SAM.


Mark Calderon, Nocturne, 2007

This bronze by Mark Calderon stared at me from a pedestal in Kucera for months. It set the bar too high serving as bait for Calderon's solo show in late summer, but the disappointment at its counterparts doesn't diminish the power of this sly, ominous phantasm.

A Little Painting with No Official Title

Anne Petty, painting, 2009

Anne Petty has glimmers of excellence. If you saw her work at the Henry in May, forget about it. She's at her best on a small scale, where she can't overwork or overthink. (It's why her watercolors turn out so well.) I was lucky enough last year to acquire this particular painting, and it may just be the new favorite in my collection.


  1. Thanks Stephen! : ) And nicely done.

  2. Thanks for coming to my show! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Feel free to link to my website in your article if you like: