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.)