"The parks that surround some museums isolate art into objects of formal delectation. Objects in a park suggest static repose rather than any ongoing dialectic. Parks are finished landscapes for finished art.”
Robert Smithson, "Cultural Confinement," 1972
Maybe Smithson’s right about sculpture parks: the bourgeois ramble, the semblance of control over nature, the way they run counter to his favorite word (“dialectic”). But then again, the art and artists who inhabit these spaces have changed a little since the pigeon- (and pigeon-shit-) clad bronze soldiers of Smithson’s time. So while the beaches crowd with naked, sunless Seattlite skin and the limitations of artisanal ice creams are discovered, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) has provided an alternative for the culturally curious leisure class, and one which artists happily open and play with expansive (maybe even sometimes “dialectial”!) works of art.
With their Summer Projects initiative, SAM will be exhibiting at the Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle new temporary works by five artists: Mungo Thomson, Whiting Tennis, Andrew Dadson, Jenny Heishman, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins. This is a precedent for the museum, exchanging a more rigid and curated park experience of heavy-metal sculpture for works that are ephemeral, playful, and dynamic.
Andrew Dadson’s Black Meadow, 2010, which as of writing has already begun to fade into the massive square of wildflower meadow it was painted on, took the form of a large-scale black paint color field expanse. The 100’ x 100’ square of meadow was covered in over 60 gallons of non-toxic, low VOC latex paint, leaving only two trees and the very tips of wildflowers exposed. The effect was one of a scorching or perhaps a blight: Reinhardt’s Revenge. This work continues Dadson’s practice of painting lawns, trees, and flowers black as a reference to the graffiti technique of buffing. In this larger context, the gesture is less complete and perfectly black, but creates a bizarre nightmarish landscape, that which has been slowly fading with the rise of the fresh undergrowth and the cleansing effect of the elements. Today, it is merely discolored and patchy, but the painterly touches of trampling and layering persist still, as if a painting could dissipate and disappear back into the canvas.
Mungo Thomson’s double articulation sound art takes up residence in two locations, one above and one below ground. Taking bird sounds, slowing them down to the point of resembling whale songs, and placing them in the parking garage is complimented by sped-up whale songs (that sound like birds) in the park. Similarly to Dadson, this piece creates a completely transformed environment with the addition of a limited sensory experience, but with a less invasive technique. Goading visitors to visit the underbelly and the potentially underrecognized locations within the Olympic Sculpture Park also nicely highlights the joys of simple urban exploration, and the massive change that can be created in the experience of a place. This is the type of art that the SAM should be pursuing more frequently and aggressively for the Sculpture Park in particular, and potentially for its museum as well. De-sterilizing the museum space, and exposing the infrastructure within it is certainly a noble goal.
Perhaps it is just a matter of dirtying things up a bit, and Whiting Tennis makes a valid case for more junk and maybe just a little more authentic weirdness. Building replicas of household furniture and appliances out of recycled materials, Tennis tosses a literal washing machine on the SAM’s front lawn, and adds a strange little cabinet to explore. Fittingly contained within is a junk made record player, with a stand-in of the great ode to backwoods living, CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.” Although the piece includes no audio, the sensory cues are so strong as to conjure up the rattling shake of an old style front loading washer/dryer, and the scratchy blues guitar licks.
Scattered around the park, Jessica Jackson Hutchins offers several organic-shaped ceramic vessels cradled delicately in hammocks handmade from articles of her family's clothing. These ceramics compose a melancholy air around them-–you sense her sculptures before seeing them. Their queer form and deep earth and flesh tones encourage a frayed psychedelic perceptual transition from sentimental ornamentation to dangling viscera.
Jenny Heishman also gets into the spirit of small curiosities and additions, contributing a bizarrely shaped and squat topiary bush that is just a little too off to be a part of the natural landscaping. There are no tags or clues, save for the awkward location and just enough considered form. This is complimented by her green and white broad striped awning that sprouts magically in the middle of an otherwise bare and utilitarian concrete wall. While it edges toward playfulness and the absurd, the austerity and simplicity of the form serve to carry it past the realm of cliche or simple joke art.
All of these pieces are successful because the museum did not make too much effort to dictate structure and event around them, or as Smithson might say, the museum didn’t “finish them.” The curator also gladly (and specifically) sought out people who were looking to energize and introduce new elements into this particular outdoor environment. These types of short term cycling installations give established artists and up-and-comers the opportunities to take on larger scale efforts that aren’t expected to be audience draws and money makers on their own. Complimented by a variety of programming to get visitors into the park, this Summer Project offers organic encounters with art objects that change their context, rather than being changed by it.
(Images courtesy of the artists and Seattle Art Museum)
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