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.
Jared Bender’s sculpture reflects his practice as a builder and craftsman. For Plumb, Level, & Square he has made a series of free-standing and wall-based sculptures from repurposed castaways. Through the use of this process-based language he continues his exploration of the nature of manual labor and love of his medium. The hand of the artist is evident in the transformation from its raw organic shape into one that is integrated with something more sculpted, machined, or manipulated.
These objects resonate because we recognize the instruments and materials we see: a five foot long and 3 foot long plumb level made of wood, steel, and brass; two three foot long square levels made of wood and glass; a square of mahogany peg board, and a massive wooden I-beam. Three high-gloss t-shirts shellacked on the matte surface of the gallery wall represent the general uniform of a construction worker, with three “high viz” safety stripes in brass gleaming from the front of each one. These are the trappings, tools, and environs of a construction worker. The presentation is humbly understated. The result is streamline, sincere, and satisfying; like a job well done at the end of a long day.
The concepts in this exhibition aren’t just about tools and trade. Bender deftly includes the contemporary and art historical references which also inspire him, such as Donald Judd and Seattle artist Dan Webb. The visual repetition throughout the show is a nod to Minimalism - as the 2004 Guggenheim exhibition so aptly phrased it, “singular forms, sometimes repeated”; the directive to create one object and repeat it for impact appears throughout Plumb, Level, & Square. Bender’s ode to Webb and medium-focused artists like him is demonstrated through his skill, devotion, and attention to detail.
The origin of the artist’s materials are not a mystery. Though his work is exquisitely made, you know where it came from and what it used to be. The lineage is apparent: a slice from the trunk of a tree; hand-machined brass or steel; strips of compressed fabric that used to be bluejeans; melted dark, raw wax. These pieces are made from an assortment of recycled hardwoods, beeswax, denim, brass, steel, or lead; leftovers from other projects or job sites. Their irregularities (length, shape, splits, live edges, and marks) are what guide Bender’s decisions about what they will become. In a sense, their very being and how he combines them, along with the tools he works with, are what dictate their future manifestation.
Throughout his range of mediums, Bender’s aesthetic and process are consistent. Lead blocks and broken wooden forms are cast and cut identically. Square levels are stacked atop one another, the lines of their tubes and bubbles mirroring one another. Stripes are repeated in brass across a wall, repeating the stripes of the objects across and beside them. When the imperfect parts became a whole, they create a dynamic rhythm of form and line from one corner to the next. They are perfectly balanced and imbalanced. A self-leveling field of repetition.
Sean M. Johnson makes work about the human spirit - its challenges, flux, frailty, and endurance. The way he describes such an array of universal experience is by using everyday objects as metaphor. He takes great care in the way he evokes our subjective response: though we all go through some version of the story he’s telling, there will always be room for us to imagine our own narrative in the context of each piece.
When Johnson and I began to work on his exhibition, ‘Before When’, he brought up an interesting point about grief, that it is not particularly about the event which provoked it. It’s about the grief itself: a crippling emotion that leaves the spirit incapacitated and bereft. It’s about a state of between-ness that is all at once momentous, dynamic, and confusing. How do we move on while hindered by this cataclysm? At what point do we accept the between-ness while trying to also reach acceptance of our loss? Some people and some circumstances take mere seconds to regain footing, while others take years; and others will never recover.
At the time, my experience of such a recovery was a distant memory. But as I sat with him, musing over the underlying philosophy of this exhibition, and how I would frame Sean’s work in the context of his intention and our potential interpretation; I couldn’t help but place it squarely within my own encounters with shock, loss, and upheaval. Our conversation recalled the aching and ever-present muscle memory of this between-ness in the face of something monumental. The feeling of that tilt came rushing back, flooding my head with the sensation of certain uncertainty.
Johnson is trying to describe the span of time between a “before” and an “after”. The word “after” isn’t correct. Rather, it is the “when”. This is the instant you have begun to understand a thing even as you are still experiencing it. This isn’t specifically related to death or even tragedy - it could be the the effect a major life event, or a birthday; it could be the ending or beginning of something significant. It is the fraction of a second that hangs suspended in air. It is a ticking watch. It is a rocking chair on end. It is the pressure of multiple things holding each other together, about to break free from restraint. Balance, precariousness, and tension are all a part of the allegorical visual language Johnson employs to represent the slices of time that occur between happening and knowing.
It would be a mistake to identify these moments as suspension, limbo, doldrums, or purgatory. One is not still, nor are they stuck. We are not in stasis. And Johnson’s installations are not at rest. They express force, nearly to a breaking point. They are upended. They gather themselves together. Their continued existence is improbable and yet they endure, defying our expectations.
What is it that holds them together? How do they continue to stand? It is the question we ask ourselves: how will we do the same?
We will only know after we survive the compressed inward force of that time. But not before.
When young, rivers are restless creatures. They rise and swell, carving a path into the mountains and plains. They form interlacing channels and long plait-like strands. They tear into the earth, dredging up boulders and sediment, carving their way through bedrock and piling sand into small islands. These young rivers lay down a varying pattern of channels described as anastomosis: narrow looping passages pulling apart like an unraveling braid only to weave back together again. Eventually, these branching bodies calm themselves to reconnect and form the wide, slow meander of a mature waterway.
Anastomosis is a term describing a multitude of branching systems, not just rivers, familiar to us in a variety of things - blood vessels, the veins of a leaf, ridges along the tops of mountain ranges, and patterns in sand dunes. The configuration is a fractal. It is the golden ratio, a golden mean, an aesthetic and mathematical formula that forms the basis of perceived beauty, symmetry, and space. But it is a structural schematic, as well. These systems are often the basis of a larger network that serves the purpose of connectivity, whether seemingly related or not. In the case of rivers, leaves, and veins, these systems bring sustenance to far reaches. In the case of man-made roads, bridges, and tunnels, they bring people.
In Claire Johnson’s exhibition of the same name, a•nas•to•mo•sis features a new series of mountainous and aerial landscape paintings exploring contour, pattern, and color formed either by nature or human intervention across the earth's surface. The connection to this investigation of a geographical term is tied to these landscapes in similarities between the branching systems of blood vessels, roads, and river-pathways; linking distant parts or places aren't obviously connected at first glance. These landscapes are an elegant description of anastomosis. But their narratives describe a particular vignette, a specific moment captured in paint the way Johnson remembers feeling at the time.
Hood is likely the most familiar of Johnson’s imagery. Mount Hood is the largest among a scattering of cinder cones and craters along the Oregon range, which include the Three Sisters and Mount Washington to the south. The Pacific Northwest may not be home to the highest elevations above sea level, but these solitary mountains are among the most dramatic in the world. Their towering summits leap high above surrounding peaks and valleys, rising sharply and suddenly. The light bounces off their glaciers and snow packs during the day, and pours itself between long shadows in the valleys at sunset. Hood captures just this moment, when the light briefly reflects a spectrum of purple, pink, and blue hues. The mountain feels like a confection, something sugary and delectable; but the branching ridges of snow and steam rising up from its flanks remind us that this is a magnificent and potentially destructive force far greater than ourselves.
On the opposite end of familiar terrain, Anastomosis (Nevada) is a weird indescribable landform, and unexpectedly my favorite. This bright warm-toned work depicts the most desolate and remote subject of all Johnson’s paintings. It feels more alien than the rich, forested mountains and rippled green landscape of the high plains; yet the connection is evident in its cascading slough, rivulets, and dried vestiges of latticed watercourses. It is a mystery because it is a foreign, hostile, and strange climate. The dangers of a desert are much different but no less deadly than that of a mountain. Anastomosis (Nevada) is lonely, arid, and far from home. Its beauty as an exotically strange place is compelling precisely because of its mystery - is it a dried up lake basin, a salt flat, an ancient sea?
Johnson admits her paintings come from a desire to record, document, and redefine. She describes them romantically, confessing that they are about feeling while pointing out that a formal conversation about feeling becomes awkward; as though somehow, when painters become sentimental, their emotion potentially dimineshes the importance of the work. But in this case, the feeling she describes is on such a grand scale of the Sublime that you can’t help but allow it. A world from 35,000 feet in the air is indescribably humbling, and wondrous. In the same way that 18th Century British philosophers acknowledged the very feeling of beauty as accompanied by a sense of awe, terror, and smallness of mankind; Johnson paints this sense of awe in a way that allows us to experience it ourselves.
True to Johnson’s lifetime of work, a•nas•to•mo•sis is a culmination of color, form, truth, and fiction; painted from memory as much as from observation. None are the same place on canvas as they are in the world. These remote locations are filtered through the lens of personal experience, stories, and a moment she is trying to capture, sharing the sense of awe we feel when enthralled by the beauty and sublimity of an endless horizon.