Brian Cypher lives just over an hour outside of Seattle in an area populated by farmland and flanked by abrupt, tall, evergreen-lined hills. Far off in the distance you can see Orcas Island, and the faint smell of salt air floats in from Puget Sound. When I arrive, the sky is cast in an eerie orange light reminiscent of sunset, but it’s mid-afternoon. There are forest fires nearby. The edges of our surroundings are soft, diffused, hazy, and warm. This is summertime in the Northwest.
When I step into Brian’s newly-forged studio, the soft edges of my surroundings shift into a crisp full-spectrum focus. He’s built a small studio that feels like a miniature Manhattan art gallery - a large room with high panoramic windows, exposed wood beam trestle, and plain concrete floor - in which he houses his archive and works tirelessly on a new extremely large-format body of work. But while it’s clearly extraordinarily crafted, even though only in progress, it’s not what catches my attention immediately. I am captivated by a much quieter row to my right, a series of works on brown paper which emit a soft vibration of irresistible shapes, line, and tangle.
I last worked with Brian for his solo exhibition Future Forage at LxWxH Gallery. In that series, he explored a similar vein of tangle evoking many of the same forms and concepts. Historically, Cypher's work was rooted in equation, drawing on geometry, pattern, rhythm, and mark-making; his lineage echoing the aesthetics and formalism of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. In Future Forage, Cypher broke free from the confines of line to revel in an electric display of asymmetrical organic forms and bright chroma.
Now, for Hinterland at Studio E in Georgetown, Cypher's process has shifted from excavation to rebuilding. He begins with existing layers of leftover paper and globs of drywall mud left on the paper which lined his studio during construction. In this way, he participates in a kind of secret collaboration with the builders, finding his way forward through this familiar-but-different terrain. It would make sense in the wake of the construction of his new studio, that this architectural process would manifest in the literal surface of these new works. They are are a direct product of the remnants of what’s been left behind. Their compositional light and texture reflect the natural world outside, while built on the manmade materials from inside. Each decision and mark is an additive with intention
The very definition of hinterland describes something more specific than just back country or the middle of nowhere: it’s defined as an area that lies inland but directly adjacent to a coastline. This is precisely where Cypher lives, physically if not not metaphorically. These paintings describe branches, barbs, clusters and nets - all familiar terrain but carrying the potential for unknown terrain. Their symbolic power is in their mapping, which echo the nearby landscape of grasslands, tree branches, hillsides, and bodies of water; as well as bridges, roads, and highways as seen from above. Or, even, the trestle of the studio itself.
Cypher taps into an ancient lineage of descriptive and symbolic documentation of the surrounding world. We are always building on top of ruins and leftovers of the past. Having emerged from the fallen material of new construction, like a new forest after a burn; this series of works on paper has become a fascinating cluster of new growth. They are as varied as the sprouts which grow from freshly uncovered hibernating seeds. They reveal an excavated, built-up landscape, after a long journey beneath the soil. This is the hinterland - a complex array of newfound visual and tactile texture.
Brian Cypher's solo exhibition Hinterland is on view at Studio E in Georgetown through October 3.
Gallery hours are Fridays and Saturdays, 1-6pm, with the artist present on Saturdays.
609 S Brandon St, Seattle WA 98108
(click on the images below to enlarge)
How many of us think of Seattle as home to a river?
The Duwamish River, flowing through the southern and southwestern reaches of Seattle, is out of sight to many city dwellers on a day-to-day basis. But it’s there, threading its body through the valleys of our industrial districts; its mouth yawning through bridges and around shipyards to pour itself into Elliott Bay.
The Duwamish has been shaped by humans, and its course changed over time. It is still wild in parts, in spite of urban development, holding some small refuge for birds of prey, waterfowl, fish, and a few mammals. As an estuary, it was once home to a complex ecosystem of this kind of wildlife and humans; a resident population of cedars, firs, and alders flanking its shores alongside tideflats, swamps, forest, and wetlands. It is named after the indigenous tribe who populated this region around the river and Elliott Bay and Lake Washington, and who are still fighting for federal recognition of their tribe.
This river represents the duality of both timelessness and change. It flows, relentlessly, through land and through time. It rises, falls, and shifts color depending on the season and the weather. And though it no longer meanders, its path is now held by the walls of its industrial bed and the manufactured island splitting its delta. No longer flanked by a forest of native deciduous and evergreen trees, it is adorned with great cranes, container ships, and industrial warehouses.
To most people, the Duwamish is an abstract idea: a historical artifact, a superfund site, an unrecognized people, a thing that is largely present and yet invisible. Ask a portion of the population what comes to mind when they think of Duwamish and most will say dirty water. Many will recall the local tribe after which the river is named, the People of the Inside, and their displacement. Oddly, few will mention the industry that has replaced the forests, wildlife, and people. Much of Seattle’s historic and present-day trade is seated here: shipyards, steel mills, foundries, steam plants, rail lines, container yards, the Port of Seattle, Boeing, cargo terminals, commercial moorage, garbage and recycle facilities, the Department of Homeland Security, and a few cruise ships. And to others still, the Duwamish is home to neighborhoods like Georgetown, South Park, and Allentown. Nestled in the curves of its banks, these neighborhoods portray a rare urban environment: river life, complete with docks, rowboats, and summertime swims.
This begins to give shape to the abstraction of a river. This river we can see but not see. This river that we know of, but don’t see much of. How do we see a river?
In Process and Artifacts at Gallery 4Culture, the twelve artists of the Duwamish Artist Residency reveal their vision of the river when they’re working along its shores, hiking through green spaces, sketching among abandoned warehouses, and shooting film from across its bridges. Through their plein-air studies, landscape drawings and paintings, abstractions, rubbings, photographs, and observations of life along the river we begin to see this underrepresented region in a new way. Their bond with this untouristed district of the city is evident in their growing visual language around the river’s history and ecology.
What I felt strongly while viewing the collection of work from the Residency was an underlying connection and response to the enduring nature of the river, the objects alongside it, the blurring of past and present (as in I could not identify a specific time), the relentless flow and movement of the river, the light, the angles, and the color. There is a kind of quiet peaceful nature to this secret revealed through artist eyes. Each piece is like a stolen moment that if not documented, would slip past like a current in the river itself.
The work throughout this exhibition reflects the nature of the Duwamish River’s flux and feeling of lapsed time. It deftly captures this cinéma-vérité, which could be any point in time, not necessarily now, but also past and future. There are recursions in the entire collection of work throughout Process and Artifacts—patterns in composition, negative space, and form. Some pieces form a grid, alluding to the surrounding city blocks; and some exist in resolute denial of it. The artists reference nature, or industry, without falling into a precise narrative about either but instead pulling forward a tactile feeling of the place. The resulting artifacts leave us with a reflection of the timeless pattern of life along a river, looping back into itself, as we loop back around to it. The river calls, and we respond.
Joey Veltkamp is unfolding one of the largest quilts I’ve seen him make, meant to envelop not just one body but two. The largest patches are made from a friend’s red plaid lumberjack flannel; one pocket prominently, lovingly, placed near the top of the blanket. “... this is for love letters,” Joey explains as he pats the pocket and flattens out the quilt. I nearly die from the sweetness, the sincerity of the remark, and absolute romance of the thought that a quilt could be made to contain such a thing.
It fits to hear those words come from Joey’s lips. After all, his entire body of work is a love letter. Even when the work is about mundane objects, Veltkamp is reaching out from the heart to express something tangible about the emotions we’re feeling. In the truest sense, he is drawing from a long history of art made from love and nurture, creating objects with beauty and meaning as well as function and memory.
In 1987, a group of friends wanted to honor the multitude of deaths that AIDS had wreaked upon the gay community. Their response was to create a quilt memorializing the names of people who had died, and is known as The AIDS Memorial Quilt, founded by The NAMES Project Foundation. Born out of anguish, the NAMES Project has served as a monument to the catastrophic effect the disease had not only on an entire culture, but on individual lives. This project points at those lives and humanizes them. These were people, not numbers or statistics. The immediate personal impact of the disease was devastating to an entire culture. Through the act of sewing – a form of mending - and naming, the AIDS Memorial Quilt became an act of healing.
The spectre of the Memorial Quilt is real. Its purpose was to commemorate the ghosts of people we remember and heal those who remain. In 2011, Joey Veltkamp exhibited a collection of colorful, pinched clay ghost sculptures at SOIL Gallery in Seattle to document his own journey through sadness. Sweet, simple, and playful, they were small protagonists in a story about grief without a name or a place. They served as symbols of people – friends, old celebrities, fictional characters – but over time they became friendly, warm, and comforting fixtures. It is from these that a new body of work emerged, a series of drawings Veltkamp made based on the shape, color, and repetition of form inspired by piles of blankets. Like ghosts, blankets are imbued with the presence of a person. Unlike ghosts, they don’t hold the shape of the person beneath them. Still, they are altered by our interaction, carrying our scent when we’re gone. Blankets and quilts hold us when others can’t. They keep us warm. Soft, cozy, and sometimes fluffy; they are in the truest sense of the word, “comforters”.
It would be easy to assume that “craft” seems to take the pressure off an artist. Quilts don’t carry the weight of Western art history. They do carry the extensive history of craft-making, nurture, caretaking, and the art of women across cultures and across time. Perhaps the most famous among them are the startlingly Abstract Expressionist quilts made by the Women of Gee’s Bend. The work of these women from Alabama can be seen across modern art museums and galleries all over the US, something I’m certain those making them never imagined would happen. And why would anyone imagine it to happen? Textile arts are passed on through generations of women, and made intimately in small gatherings. Though they are not made for exhibition, they are a document of a culture. Quilts are a recording of moments in time. They are a portrait of the person for whom they are made. But the people making them remain invisible.
Quilt-making has long been relegated to the work of women confined to the home, who were expected to take care of their men and children and to some extent, each other. Historically, while men’s work is expressly tied to the notion of identity and recognition, women have laboured without any expectation of it. In these traditional heteronormative roles, men are celebrated for their work, and women are only noticed when it isn’t done. So what does it mean when a man takes on the work that is traditionally assigned to women? What about a gay man who is aligning himself with women? The question becomes one about narrative, who is describing it, and how it’s being told.
When a gay man takes on the feminine language and acts of women, he is not standing in place of her. Rather, he is standing alongside her. While he still benefits from his status as a male, he is also demoted – being feminine, or like a woman, is not of value to the privileged few in Western society. To say one is “like a girl” is to say they are weak, inferior, or less than. If the worst insult one man can hurl towards another is to identify him as “female”, then the gay male holds an identity as one who is male, but who like women, receives men; and who is then placed between. He can speak neither for men, nor for women. He has his own story of hardship, acceptance, gender roles, and identity.
Joey Veltkamp is creating a series of quilts and flags where color forms stories of identity through symbolism. Common themes of alienation or weirdness emerge, for example, in the way he uses neon, giving us a visual clue that there is something happening or about to happen. This use of color is a marker of uncanny Pacific Northwest energy, a sign of something strange or supernatural. Veltkamp loves to touch on the bizarre nature and mythology of this rainy, dark, and mystical region - our penchant for vampires, serial killers, and long dark winters creates a sort of Norse-like feeling of weirdness and the supernatural. The Northwest, a historically transient location in the furthermost corner of the lower 48 States, is a home to misfits, weirdos, and outcasts.
Veltkamp often points to these cultural references or people in his flags. Through them, he celebrates feminist, queer, and minority remembrances or slogans. “A Day Without Lesbians Is Like A Day Without Sunshine”, or pulls an uncanny quote from a Nirvana song that evokes the scratchy voice of Kurt Cobain screaming “No Recess”. Or they cite a ballad of strength such Alicia Keys’ “That Girl is On Fire”. Each of these embody a duality which reflects the history of the music they reference. Like old 45s, the flags have “A sides” and “B sides”, often containing two different texts or an image and a text that correspond with one another.
The flags feel celebratory but they are also a call to attention. They are evocative of banners carried by activists during a march, containing short but memorable words to carry home and not forget. But rather than protest, they serve as an homage to the heroes in his life, people who are in his words folks who create space. And in fact, while Veltkamp isn’t ordinarily identified as an activist artist, he has a history of doing just such a thing in his artistic practice: he creates space. Whether that’s been through his blog ‘Best Of’, using his studio residency at Seattle University for a series of workshops taught by artists in the Seattle community, or creating the Seattle Women’s Convention at the Hedreen Gallery (again, at Seattle University); this is precisely what Joey’s activism looks like. He clears the stage for others to speak, or just be.
It would be easy to describe Veltkamp’s work as pop art, not only because of its references but because of its colorful iconography. But playing with both subject matter and object-ness, Veltkamp’s works describe a lineage that traces back to the work of Jasper Johns - a gay male artist (his lover was Robert Rauschenberg) who treated the duality of his works with a distinct philosophy that they could be all things at once, both subject and object; formal composition and material. He defied the macho-ism of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, whose work was more like a stamp of their personality, and instead pursued conveying symbols outside of their meaning. Johns’ best examples of painting as object, separate from symbol, are his series of flag paintings or targets. Both toyed with our attachment to the symbol while declaring their presence as formal constructions. The game is in our attention to the symbol, as well as its life as an independent work of art. Johns once said:
Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither. At every point in nature there is something to see. My work contains similar possibilities for the changing focus of the eye.
This points back to Veltkamp’s still lifes (the diary drawings) and his blanket series, which are collections of things demanding to be viewed out of context as a collection of marks on paper. He draws them because he sees them; he sees them, therefore he draws them.
The transition from soft quilts into draughtsmanship formalizes them. They recall Veltkamp’s diary drawings which described his life and the lives of those he knew, giving weight and meaning to mundanity, a pile we might not otherwise give attention to. He has given composition to the clutter, and order to chaos. These objects alone have no significance, but when portrayed together they tell a compelling story, if not a biography. In much the same way, blankets are blankets until viewed through another lens. What is ordinary changes simply because we are looking. And when we are looking, we begin to see the many different sides of a thing, and what that thing can be.
Jasper Johns spoke frequently to the duality in his work. He said:
I made the flags and targets to open men’s eyes … (they) were both things - which are seen and not looked at - examined.
We expect artists to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. We expect them to respond to their environment and a constant stream of input and information. While some collectors or critics might fear a lack of consistency in the work, the continuity actually lies within the artist’s underlying philosophy. The artist him/her/self is the binding thread. Therefore consistency is an inevitability. Artists must allow themselves duality and contradiction - I am this, I am not this, I am these things. It speaks to their unspeakable compulsion to make things, whatever those things may be, whether tangible, idea-based versus object-based, curatorial, and so on.
True to the content of love letters, Joey Veltkamp’s duality is sweet, nostalgic, and celebratory. Like a rush of blood to the head we are dizzy with color, joy, and happiness. Of course there is context, meaning, and a story Veltkamp wants to tell us, but he doesn’t tell it for us. His view is only a window into a world he is willing to share and we are allowed to move through it and place ourselves within it. He has created a space for us.
The best art lives and moves with us, wherever we go. We carry it, like a pocket full of love letters.
Last July, Shaun Kardinal created an interactive piece for Seattle's web-based gallery project Violet Strays. It blew my mind. At first glance, it's an image. Then it occurs to you to hover your mouse over it, or perhaps this happens accidentally or intuitively. Things start to spin around, and layer up as you move the arrow. Once you click the image, it reloads to start something new and your dance begins again. The joy of the piece is in your discovery of an invitation to play.
This user-dependent browser-based piece is built from a photo feed which accumulated over the course of his one week "installation". The overlays are geometric and graphic but if you know Kardinal's work, you know these marks are essentially a virtual embroidery stitch on a virtual card. The piece is titled "Heptaparaparshinokh" which upon some research was revealed to be "The Law of Seven (or Octave)" - fascinatingly having to do with seven points of swerving from a previous direction of a force's movement. Heptaparaparshinokh is an elegant marriage of concept and aesthetic.
Kardinal's sewing came at a time when there wasn't much sewing going on in Seattle, but it was beginning to creep into view. Unlike large scale projects such as my own where the stitch is large and spans a 13 foot wall; this vein of work brings art down to an intimate level where the work is cherished and hand-held. Artists love postcards. They trade them, they add to them, they become elaborate exquisite corpse projects. But Shaun keeps it quiet, simple, and contained. They are created from his own world but he is offering them to you without pretense or expectation. They are what you want them to be.
I appreciate that Kardinal's stitching has become more integrated with the collaged image, that there is a visual storyline of colour, shape, and form that springs from the composition underneath. The fault of many artists who embroider is that the stitch has little or nothing to do with its source, serving more as an arbitrary treatement of line and colour for the sake of design. That isn't necessarily bad, but it's the particular virtue of Connotations that the hand of the artist aligns itself with the material so well. This integration is what makes it so strong and in my opinion, though it manifests in Connotations it truly culminates in his web project Heptaparaparshinokh. This is an experiment that I look forward to seeing continue both in tactile paper pieces and hopefully, some day on a screen once again.
GO SEE CONNOTATIONS AT JOE BAR
Capitol Hill Art Walk, 12 April 2012810 East Roy Street @ Harvard
12 April - 8 May
As I entered the vast open space of Western Bridge, my companion who was already inside grinned at me mischievously. I asked what was so funny. She said, “this piece is everything I both love and hate about contemporary art” … I asked the dreaded question (dreaded because we were presumeably standing in front of it in the middle of a very large room but I didn’t want to admit which “piece” it was) : “what piece?”
My friend smiled and pointed at the floor. I looked down at the puddle of water near our feet, crestfallen. Yes. Yes of course this is the one. This is the piece that will cause all the anguish because unlike Dan Webb’s meticulously documented process of carving a block of wood from perfection into dust (which you’ll find carefully collected in a Plexiglas box at the end of the aforementioned documentation); this piece is going to challenge the very idea of what an artistic process is, and whether or not it needs to be tangible. Is process in the mind of the artist, or is it forced upon us as we toil to wrap our own minds around that thing that we both want and don’t want to understand? Is our own attempt to wrap ourselves around the work to justify its existence as art in its own way a kind of art?
These questions only lead to more questions:
Why is there a puddle of water on the floor? Why am I so obsessed with its presence and [in] authenticity? Why can’t I just make a joke and move on, rather than stand here and try to figure it out so that I can explain it to my friends? Why does this work want me to want it to be art?
Perhaps that is the most important, most revealing question, as a viewer.
The rest of the work in the gallery is what I’d expect to see - minimal, clean, large, and contemporary. I love this kind of work. It’s what I want to see more of in Seattle. These are artists whose work resides in lofty galleries in Chelsea, NYC. These are artists who’ve been in the Whitney Biennial. But if I’m honest, sometimes I don’t want to see it. I don’t know if I've forgotten how it feels to be around it, or if it’s just that it feels out of place here. Or maybe it’s just so achingly polished and contemporary. It doesn’t matter. Don’t let my internal conflict get to you - I make very minimal work. But sometimes I need things to be … dirtier … messier.
So it says something to me that the most interesting things in Western Bridge are actually the architectural elements of the building. I’m in love with the space. I’m fascinated by the height recordings on a wooden pillar towards the back; not only because it’s a marker of physical facts, but because it’s a marker of who’s been there - many of them rather well known art folks in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a quiet understated slice of history: these people were here at this time. Also there is a large hook on a chain in the front, as well as a complex array of knobs and handles brightly painted red. It’s not supposed to be as interesting as the art but it has such a strong presence in the room that it can’t not have a strong presence in the room. Also when you’re south of SODO, everything is an industrial element. Knobs, tracks, wheels, cranks, gears, scaffolding, cranes, and other earmarks of industry are as important a part of the [interior and exterior] landscape as the mountains, sea, and sky.
The most fitting and fulfilling installation I’ve ever seen in the space is by my former Pratt professor Mary Temple. When she was here, she created a fictional reflection of light that lulled you into that lazy late afternoon moment where sunlight cascades across your wall from a window across the street. It’s so beautifully Northwest in a way - we Seattlites are not without a keen sense of our environmental surroundings. Our light is specific to our open sky, the way it bounces off the mountains, Elliott Bay/Puget Sound, and buildings. Or off of plate glass windows on that warehouse across the railroad tracks.
Which brings me back to water - something we’re inescapably surrounded by. I couldn’t make a joke about Emilie Halpern’s puddle because nothing about any of the work in this exhibit is a joke. It’s all very serious. The puddle of water is four litres, the amount of liquid which can be contained by the human lungs. You have to read the handout to know that. You have to read another art review to know that the puddle evaporates over the course of the day to leave a salt stain on the floor. That’s the barrier. But once you know that, you can’t help but form your own story of why that puddle is there in the first place.
Therein lies the beauty. It’s a story that you make. Not the artist, who doesn’t explain its presence. You imagine it.
And so it’s art that I can’t joke about because it's valid the moment I realize I’m the author. It’s the same with any kind of conceptual work - you are doing the work. I make you do this with my own work. Having an artifact at the end of the day doesn’t mean the art is somehow more valid.
And it isn’t fair for me to say all the work in the show is totally minimalist, although there are still echoes.
Dan Webb’s endless row of documented woodwork is a tangible reality that I can almost feel with my hands, as though I were carving his skull myself. I love that the climax is a container of the dust at the end of the row of photographs. While I enjoy the evidence, what I’m not so sure about is the need for it to exist as proof. Perhaps I’d prefer to put that together myself?
Mungo Thomson hangs two mirrors facing one another with the Time’s trademark frame and title text painted on them, making you the person of the year. Since there are two, the reflections are infinitely recursive.
Matt Sheridan Smith’s beautifully drawn portraits which have been covered in the weird silver stuff that covers lottery tickets, which has been partially scratched to reveal the drawings underneath. (did he use a quarter to remove it?) At first I thought they looked like portraits from various currency. As it so happens, they’re friends of the artist. The style of work combined with the scratch ticket and all of it pointing to money is awesome.
Probably my favorite piece, Alex Schweder La’a small subtle installation literally lives and grows above the stairwell; which if you don’t pay attention you’ll disregard as mold - something else we sort of take for granted in our damp region. Its presence slowly eats away at the structure of the building, changing it over time, pieces of the paint and drywall slowly disappearing under the blooming fuzz. The world itself revolves around a pattern of growth and consumption, only to grow and consume again. Out of everything I’ve seen in this exhibition, this is the one that resonates most with the title, and with Western Bridge’s pending demise.
These pieces have an earthiness I relate to. I feel the presence and the hand of the artist when I look at them. What more could I ask? I want to know the maker of these things is with me, as buried in the work as I am, making a beautiful mess of things inside and out.
Sadly, most of this show doesn’t give me what I’m looking for, outside of everything I both love and hate about contemporary art. Nonetheless, I will miss Western Bridge when it is gone. Tremendously.
Western Bridge, Through April 7
3412 4th Ave S, @ Hinds
(I apologise in advance for my blurry cellphone shots below.)