Miranda Metcalf became the director of the Contemporary Print Department of Davidson Galleries—one of Seattle's oldest operating galleries—in 2012. Metcalf scored the position while she was technically still earning her MA at the University of Arizona—probably to the envy of everyone in her graduating class—and moved back to her native Seattle to take over the department.
Recently, she's begun taking research trips to Asia and exhibiting the highlights of what she sees. 2015 brought “Contemporary Prints from Thailand” and “Contemporary Japanese Printmakers”, which included a trip to Japan. 2016 brings “Contemporary Chinese Printmakers” (March 3-April 2) and an upcoming Australia-themed exhibit in April.
I joined Metcalf at Davidson last week, where she toured me around “Contemporary Chinese Printmakers” in her black harem-pants jumpsuit. (What proper curator doesn't own a cuffed parachute jumpsuit?) We talked about the freedom of gallery curation, Chinese sexism versus American, and how to jump the Great Firewall of China.
Miranda K. Metcalf (on the right) and gallery intern Xiqian Li at the exhibition opening.
Your academic background is in 16th century European art. But, now you're jet-setting off to Asia to haul back work from the best printmakers working today. What's driving you?
I've always been interested in curating through immersive travel. There's a kind of mind expansion that can happen when you're totally engaged in seeking out a country's contemporary and historical context through its art. Doing a series of international—particularly Asian—exhibits has been on my mind since I took this position.
I have a personal interest in China, not just in its art and culture, but about the Western perspective of it. It's a huge world power that we tend to feel very cut-off from. And I get the sense that there is an almost willful ignorance surrounding China amongst Americans: we seem to reduce Chinese society and culture to stereotypes in a way that we wouldn't dare with, say, Hmong culture or Italian, or Inuit.
In the sense that making wide or uninformed generalizations wouldn't be PC about those cultures, but it's accepted about China?
Absolutely. We often hear, “Oh, France! I love France, it's so beautiful, such accents, such history, wonderful art.” And then, from the same people: “Oh, China – that's where plastic comes from.” When really it's so much more complex, more nuanced than that. Our Cold War media messaging has definitely carried over into the present. While some of those messages aren't wrong, they encourage reductivism, and discourage us from investigating. But, art is a powerful vehicle for cultural exchange, for breaking down assumptions.
"...Maybe they're looking at us and thinking, “how can American art have any meaning when it's all about themselves? When it's not grounded in tradition?"
You had to get old-school when curating this exhibition, since China is basically on a separate internet from the rest of the world. What was your methodology for finding these artists?
The Great Firewall of China was a huge hurdle. With past international exhibitions I could research a country’s contemporary printers online. Even if artists didn't have personal websites there were always professional organizations, academic institutions, and other galleries I could rely on to get an electronic preview of the work. China is different. There's no Facebook, no YouTube, no Google. And that's a problem both ways: artists couldn't look up my gallery to confirm I wasn't a scammer!
Most of the communicating I did was through our amazing intern, Xiqian Li. She did hours of translation for me, and then we used an app called WeChat to communicate with our Chinese artists.
And then I just had to get on the ground. Art Partners—aka Barbara Pitts and Cathy Gill—is a group that facilitates artistic exchanges between Seattle and Wuhan. They connected me with several artists who are professors of printmaking at Hubei University. I learned about the Beijing print scene through two professors at the elite Central Academy of Fine Arts. And I traveled with print-maker Jenny Robinson, who is a bad-ass travel partner.
Did you have a list of artists with whom you wanted to meet or already knew you'd feature once you hit the ground in China?
Not really. That digital barrier was a blindfold. Most everything I did was on-the-fly. I had to look for opportunities as they presented themselves. I saw work in artist studios, galleries, and in private residencies. Anytime I saw a way to see more work I had to jump on it. And once word got around, especially in Wuhan where I gave a gallery talk, people came out of the woodwork to push catalogs into my hands.
What's going on in the Chinese printmaking scene? Are most of the artists you're featuring working as full-time professional artists? Teaching? Working in traditional modes or busting out on their own?
People look to China as the cradle of printmaking. 2,000 years ago there were small carved stamps (chops) used to create signatures, and we often reference those as the first printmaking in the world. Today, there are fine art academies and universities with incredible print studios. That means artists are working at an extremely high level of sophistication and quality. And size was a huge factor: printmaking is physically gigantic in China. The work that gets celebrated is big. I had to set a size limit.
Because three 12' long prints would eat up most of your exhibit space?
Partially. Our collectors are largely private collectors,and these were not home-sized objects. They were made for museums and government buildings. Originally, I had the top-level printers in China on my radar, but their sizes and their prices were just too big for us.
Additionally, those highest-level artists are entrenched in a Chinese value system, in terms of how artwork is considered “good”. It's highly technically skilled, yes, but they also have strong references to the old masters who have come before. That's a barrier to my audience, who doesn't have the context.
Haoyu Xu \ Floating Aimlessly 10 \ 2014, lithograph 15 x 19 inches \ Image courtesy of Davidson Galleries
When I saw the title of the exhibit I admit that I expected a museological overview of the most important printmakers working today in China. Something holistic. But, a good number of these artists are still considered emerging artists, and not all that well-known in China. Do you worry that people will question your curatorial choices?
I didn't set out to get the “best-of” China, or create a perfect survey. That's nearly an impossible task. And what hubris to think I could! The title was supposed to read “Contemporary Chinese Printmakers” rather than “Contemporary Chinese Printmaking.” (Our graphics folks didn't get the memo.) I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I am claiming that this is somehow an inclusive overview of the work coming out of a diverse nation.
I guess my assumption was grounded in personal experience curating for a museum, where every perspective needs to be covered and every choice justified.
While education and information is a crucial part of what we do, as a gallery we're free of the expectation of creating canon. I was more concerned with each work being fantastic, standing alone, than matching a theme or trying to represent an entire scene. This exhibit is more, This is what I saw while I was in this country, what I thought was beautiful and good, and I hope you think so, too.
With the caveat that you're not a tourist bringing home schlock, but a curator with a trained eye.
As a curator, you know what you want. 95% of the time within half a second after you've seen it. But, having said that, I didn't make my decisions standing right there. I brought everything back, had a hard think, consulted with [gallery owner] Sam Davidson, and then made my invitations.
Which works did you know you had to have?
There were a few artists I made concrete promises with while I was there: Hui Zhang and Yan Wang were two. My brain absolutely lit up with their work.
Hui Zhang's work kicks off the show, and his work is a direct challenge of some stereotypes Westerners may carry about China, particularly Asian women. They're depictions of young girls screaming or singing their lungs out—or holding your eye with an absolutely rock-solid gaze. I couldn't stop staring back at them.
Part of the reason I responded to those was gaining insight into how hard it is for women in China. Jenny and I worked with a number of young, highly educated women who translated for us at the universities. These were women who'd just returned from studying at the Royal Academy in London—operating at an extremely high level. I'd ask them if they were looking for a position in one of the Chinese universities, and they'd respond: “oh, we've asked, but they say there are enough women working there.”
It was mind boggling. I deal with my fair share of sexism as the young, female director of my department here in Seattle, but it's subtle. This was just a factual, up-front thing.
We worked with a translator named Mia while we were there, and I asked her whether she would translate for me at my gallery lecture. Two of the male trip coordinators caught wind of that, and absolutely chewed her out—in Chinese—right in front of me. Mia later explained what they said: she was stepping above her station, that the gallery was a professional academic institution and wouldn't want her there, and that surely they'd have a better translator on hand. Turns out? They didn't have one. Mia had to scramble to step in at the last minute, and did an amazing job.
Were you largely exempt from that kind of overt sexism, being professionals and guests?
I wasn't busted down because of my gender, though I was second-guessed a lot. The overt stuff was actually more ageist. Jenny Robinson is a print-maker in her late 50's, I'm a curator in my early 30's—and everyone seemed to think we were alternately too old and too young to be doing what we were there to do!
Too old to be an artist?
People told Jenny, “Oh, you're so strong!” when she carried her bags around. She's not decrepit! She operates a huge press in her studio!
At my gallery I'm often questioned, but usually people's reactions are: “You're the director? Oh, well, good on you!” In China, it was more: “I hear you're a young doctor of printmaking...are you sure?” Like it was factually wrong. By the end I was like, “Yep, that's me, doctor of printmaking, whaddya want?”
I'm glad you didn't revert to the womb while you were there , and that Jenny didn't wither away into nothing.
By the end, she dubbed herself 'One Foot in the Ground Robinson'.
A solid amount of the work in the exhibit doesn't overtly reference China at all, and is reflective of personal experience, or abstract. Others are culture and country-specific. Is the mix an intentional choice? Or are there connections that I'm missing?
I was intentionally not looking for work that “looks Chinese”, but instead for what was compelling and spoke well of the scene. But, this was complicated by a couple of factors: that the visual culture of Chinese is very distinct, and that the government has tight hold on what art you see. Being an outsider and of course only spending 10 days there I have no way of knowing which is the chicken and which is the egg with this. There are certain themes which are approved and if an artist makes imagery which fits into these themes they are much more likely to get their work seen and therefore for me to see it.
Is there work in this show that would not be able to be exhibited in China? Too politically sensitive?
I don't think so. All of these artists operate within the academic sphere, which is cozy with the government.
I did try to discuss censorship in recent decades with a few the artists I met there. It was difficult for them to talk about, not only because it's sensitive politically and personally, but because many of the artists have lived and trained within this culture of institutionalized censorship. They've learned to grow around the borders placed before them, and have found a meaningful practice within them. The attitude was, “Yes of course it sucks, no I don’t really want to talk about it. Talk about what I have done, not what I am kept from doing. That is a much more interesting conversation.”
So, it's like asking an artist why they don't use the color flirth in their paintings. What's flirth? They've never seen it, so why should they miss it or worry about it? The paintings are still representations of their lives and emotions, and convey a message.
When artists develop their whole careers in that context, this is their practice and reality, and that's what we should focus on. We have this assumption that they are yearning against the system and dreaming of getting out, but maybe they're looking at us and thinking, “how can American art have any meaning when it's all about themselves? When it's not grounded in tradition?”
To wrap up, any long-term lessons you've carried away from the experience of curating this show?
Don't try to open an exhibit with Chinese artists a few weeks after Chinese New Year. You won't get the work until a day before the exhibit opens, and you'll get some gray hairs waiting for it.
Contemporary Chinese Printmakers runs through April 2nd. It features work by Feng Zheng,Fan Fang, Liao Yang, Guangxi Wen, Jiantan Wu, Xiang Li, Wei Zhang, Yan Wang, Yun Fei Ling, Lian Zhang, Yijie Lu, Hui Zhang, Beini Mu, Mengmeng Tan, Lan Bao, and Haoyu Xu.
— author Sarra Scherb--aka Brass Archer—is a writer, gallerist, curator and designer in Seattle. She has worked with four Seattle art galleries and five Washington museums on exhibits, research, writing and curation. She's written and designed for publications including The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine, Weave Magazine and the Seattle Art Dealers Association. She can usually be found wearing suspenders, too much lipstick, and a squint.
Tracy Rector is a dynamo. I met her through SPoCS (Seattle People of Color Salon), when she invited the entire community to join her for the penultimate SuperFly launch dinner at the Suquamish Longhouse. Since then she and I have continued to celebrate, and celebrate each other. It’s really easy to support Tracy’s ambitions and achievements. Her work with Longhouse Media and the wider community has been a consistent force of inclusive engagement. I admire the joy I see her protecting in herself and within the community she is building around her.
Of course, what I really wanted was to indulge in a four-hour-long brunch of wanton consumption—lingering over questions made of chewed dirt and ephemera that spring from my mind organically, and in the moment. I wanted her to linger with me on a Holodeck without deadlines and agendas, to lick the loose threads of cultural and diasporic dialogue, to really needle word choices like indigenous, to pry open and unhook the scaly undersides of terminology, the claiming or renunciation, the significance of such an articulated artifact, revivified. I wanted the palpable connection—something like a steady gaze over dim sum—the first-hand account of her words (as solid as hands) reaching, choosing, pulling from the many, a few to huddle around her specific definition of home …
But this is reality folks. And in reality, that kind of indulgence has yet to occur because we are women of color who do too much. The way water is wet, this is the way women of color push themselves to the marrow beyond the bone. So, using only the technology and the scant time available to us, she graciously fed me a few morsels about her latest project: YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND which just closed at Core Gallery on Friday, January 29th.
Look through my eyes to see Tracy at the opening of YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND: She is relaxed, her stance is ajar like an open door—I, like many, swoop in for hugs, taking them quickly like handfuls of bread. Easily, her head tips back to laugh, recognize, or agree. She is generous, welcoming, and open. She is smiling and her smile seems earned.
[Natasha] Tell me about your first experience with curating a show like this.
[Tracy] Well, curating is not for the thin-skinned, or for folks who buckle under stress. It's hugely stressful, an enormous balancing act, a constant exercise in troubleshooting, an opportunity to practice relationship skills, a time to be decisive, and above all I found that I needed to be OK with frequently asking for help and just holding the faith that something would come together!
I loved it!
[Natasha] How did the idea for YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND come to fruition?
[Tracy] I firmly believe in working with as many women, women of color, and POC as possible while I mature as an artist. My foundation for any creative goal or community work is centered on uplifting others. Leveraging this space [Core Gallery] for a group show, and as an opportunity for many of these artists to have their first gallery exhibition, felt and feels vitally necessary given the still entrenched everyday inequities that we face.
In terms of tribes or Nations represented, we have a huge diversity ... Aztec, Tlingit, Duwamish, Haida, Creek, Muckleshoot, Tulalip, Native Hawaiian, Lakota, Cowichan and loads more. I truly love how inter-tribal and mixed-race most everyone is in the series.
[Natasha] How do you and Melissa know each other? Have you worked together before?
[Tracy] For years, Melissa [Ponder] has been volunteering for me and for Longhouse Media events as an event photographer and as a SuperFly mentor. When this portrait idea came to mind, I asked Mel if she would be "into" collaborating on it. She said yes!
[Natasha] Can you tell me the tribes/nations represented by the project to date?
[Tracy] We’ve taken about 130 photographs with a goal of reaching 365, but with an even more ambitious goal of 1001 Indigenous faces.
In terms of tribes or Nations represented we have a huge diversity to date, which I think is typical of Urban Native communities for many reasons. Aztec, Tlingit, Duwamish, Haida, Creek, Muckleshoot, Tulalip, Native Hawaiian, Lakota, Cowichan and loads more. I truly love how inter-tribal and mixed-race most everyone is in the series.
[Natasha] Who is your community? Who is your family? How do you decide this?
[Tracy] I truly feel like a mom, first and foremost. I adore my two boys and have sacrificed a lot for them to have many opportunities. I've also learned so much from them, too.
I am connected to my family of origin. I am also very involved in an intentionally crested family of loved ones and peers. I've been especially lucky to meet so many incredibly beautiful people through my work as Longhouse Media, and SuperFly, too. These people have certainly become a spiritual family.
[Natasha] How do you feel about how Seattle is changing?
[Tracy] Ugh...I'm very sad about the drastic changes happening in our beautiful city. In my opinion, money has governed many of the decisions that have shaped and will shape the aesthetics and culture of Seattle.
I really try to stop myself from complaining and try to practice letting go and welcome change. But to be honest, there's just a lot of fucked up shit happening right now, steered by outsiders who have no emotional connection to the city, the people, the land or the cultural heritage of our home.
A few bright spots of hope for me are: the amazingly passionate young people at Garfield High School, who have lead the way for much of the Black Lives Matter work; the team in the Office of Arts & Culture, the incredibly powerful change-makers and artists in our local Indigenous community, the fact that the International District is landmarked, the diverse music scene, and the foresight of Capitol Hill Housing has been pretty impressive.
[Natasha] A well-meaning white person recently mentioned Seattle's "Scandinavian roots" to me and I almost hissed at them. What does Seattle need to know about itself that it's in denial about?
[Tracy] There are some deep Scandinavian roots here, which characterized much of my reality and many of my experiences growing up in Seattle. I love that there is a stronghold of Scandinavian awareness in Ballard. Buttttttttt, I truly wish that we could protect our other heritage areas and pockets of diversity.
Perhaps it has to do with skin color, access, money and or resources? I'm really feeling bummed about the CD lately. In a perfect world, I want to love all these wealthy Millennials moving into the sweet bungalows of the Central District, and believe they won’t behave as entitled outsiders; but I feel a huge disconnect to this group of new people. I feel angry. I feel displaced. And I feel upset that an African-American grandma who has lived in her home for 50 years can't afford the property taxes anymore, and is made to feel like an outsider in the very same neighborhood she grew up in—which was during an era of redlining and people like her couldn’t venture out of the Central District because of a lack of safety and intense racism and hatred.
Also, do folks know that after the Civil War many Southerners moved up here to get away from the influence of the North? As I understand, the largest Klan rally ever—or was it white supremacist rally ever—took place in the area now known as Belltown. Do people know that Natives were outlawed from being in the city of Seattle? The early settlers were especially nasty towards the First People, and there were many deadly attacks in order to seize land. Governor Stevens even put a bounty out on the scalps of misbehaving or "bad Indians", and made many promises in treaties that he had no intention of honoring. Or that a smallpox epidemic furthered by the federal government killed about 75-90% of the local tribal people? We are all on stolen land. Land gained by American colonizers and dishonorable men by sacrificing the lives of the Indigenous people living here. In my opinion this city is the unseeded territory of the First Peoples. And so I just want everyone to beware that they ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND, and know exactly what that history entails.
Tracy Rector expands on the concept behind YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND:
"Art is not separate from life for many Indigenous people. It's as essential as food and water in many ways. It keeps us grounded and connected to creator and spirit. My concept as part of this show was to create a space where the artists can practice their work as they would any day and for the public to learn about the vast diversity of contemporary talent in our communities. It's not all just leathers and feathers as stereotypes would lead the public to believe.
YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND is in response to the pervasive colonizer mentality of racist xenophobes who don't want to allow refugees into this country, or those extremists in Oregon who want "their land" back which was actually violently seized by the federal government from the Paiute. Native history is everyone's history here on the lands now called the United States of America. Our show is a proud reminder that we are still here on the land of our ancestors despite the American genocide that our relatives experienced.
YOU ARE ON INDIGENOUS LAND carves a space for Indigenous people to support one another. There are far to few Indigenous spaces if any inside the city limits and it's time that we change this fact. First Peoples history is everyone's history and all citizens would benefit from such spaces!"
FEATURED ARTISTS INCLUDED:
in·dig·e·nize (Tracy Rector and Melissa Ponder)
Joe 'wahalatsu?' Seymour
— Author Natasha Marin is struggling to accept the danger of identifying as a single black mother living in America. She practices radical transparency as a form of digital performance art and serves tea to strangers all over the world at midnight. Follow her like a creeper on Twitter @mikokuro.
Please browse the gallery below by clicking on any image and scrolling through.
In January, G. Gibson Gallery presented Cable Griffith’s second solo exhibition at the gallery, this time featuring paintings about UFO sightings. This beautiful body of work continues the video game aesthetic Griffith has been cultivating for the better part of a decade with a dark, rich palette. His scenery describes a broad range of geography, but the dominant use of greens, blues, browns, and blacks are strong enough to suggest a wet, dark, and cold northerly location—our Pacific Northwest location. When warm colors appear like red or orange, they contrast brightly but still interlock with the rest. The compositions aren’t made of sharply defined lines, only shapes of color. His rigid pixelated-pop style creates a variance to the organic shapes, colors and underlying painterliness of his brushwork.
There is a general logic to most of the paintings: nature and object. They each present a different view of the same fictional world which feels, for the most part, complete and coherent. This logic creates rules governing what is, and how. It’s rigorous. And as a result of this rigour, the “sightings,” represented as they are in the style Griffith explores, are incorporated into the environments of his pieces in the same way that everything else represented is incorporated. There is no significant difference between the trees, the land, the water, the sky or the lights in the sky. In Griffith’s world, they are all real and manifest in the same way, each of them natural, and treated as such.
There are two pieces in the show where this rule-based harmony doesn’t feel quite so true. In Maury Island, the “sighting” appears to hover; alien and out of place in the environment. This amplifies our attention on the utopia in Griffith’s other works, and particularly when grouped together in chorus with one another. In Two Lights in the Woods, there’s a waterfall in the bottom left section. The brush is boldly revealed in a swathe of unruly water spray. What the brush stroke in Two Lights calls attention to is that behind the seamless fusion of the natural world, space, and the digital world that Cable presents, is Cable himself. That this surreal world is largely coherent is a result of it being represented coherently by the artist.
"Between comprehension and terror is the truth. Anything else is just a well-told story."
This series is an engagement with storytelling, both in the pieces that present complete stories, and in works like Maury Island and Two Lights that get their power from breaking the rules laid down for the others. These are paintings that all share the general subject matter—accounts and stories of reported sightings. And Griffith’s painterly style itself is a sort of retelling. They are paintings based on digital representations of the perceived world of the digital designer; paintings of artifacts, both memorial and material, in a recreated world; based on a digital world; based on an imaginary world; based on the physical world. These are the stories of stories about stories in a style of a style.
The effect of all this—beautiful visions in and of a mythological world—called into question as they are throughout, is a sense of uneasy hope. By combining the aesthetics of digital world, video games, UFOs, and space; Griffith bridges several great human horizons. He envelopes them in natural environments, suggesting there is the chance of comprehension and maybe even mastery over these forces. They are our future. But even as the hope of understanding and mastery is presented, so are the reminders that this hope is yet another story of a story— it is something we are being told about.
When it comes to having reasons to hope there is indeed a next frontier, and that we will have access to it, Griffith’s stories seem timely. The commercialization of space is steadily underway, and the recent news of SpaceX’s successful return of a stage 1 rocket, typically lost in a launch, seems to assure future profitability. The digital world is more rich and complex than we have language to describe. And finally the truth we have all resigned ourselves to— that we will continue to pillage our planet until it is completely uninhabitable—necessitates the need for hope beyond Earth. And what is true of hope is that it is a story we tell ourselves to keep going more than it is a true representation of the world. For truth, it's best to look at the midpoint between the paintings in Sightings and Lovecraft’s work. Between comprehension and terror is the truth. Anything else is just a well-told story. Cable is a wizard of a storyteller, and his world is worth visiting.
Today, Saturday, 16 January is the last day to see Sightings; but any remaining work from the show is available to view by appointment at G. Gibson Gallery.
— Author Ben Gannon is a Seattle-based artist and sometimes philosopher. He attended Whitman College, where he co-founded the arts periodical Quarterlife Magazine. His work has been shown at NEPO 5K Don't Run, Cupcake Royale, and 12th Ave Arts Center for their inaugural celebration Garden Variety, curated by Amanda Manitach.
All images courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.