Somewhere over the sofa

Linda Farris' bold new art project.

A PAINTING BY New York artist Will Cotton hangs on the living-room wall of the Madrona home Linda Farris shares with her husband John Kuchar. The painting itself, executed in glisteny soft-focus oils, represents a little house: one of those nightmare assemblages of graham crackers, peppermint swirls, gumdrops, and icing you still see put forward as birthday party centerpieces in the magazines sold in the checkout line impulse-racks of downscale supermarkets.

This gruesome object has quite clearly been painted from life: meticulously, passionately, quite without a trace of irony. The resulting artwork should, by all rational accounts, make one's gorge rise. Instead it makes one's brain fizz, providing the same kind of energy charge that much of the best art of the last hundred years provides: a material avenue opening upon dream. And over the next five years or so, a few dozen lucky local residents are going to have a chance to live in close quarters with Cotton's vision, and a few dozen others of similar strangeness and power.

When she closed her Pioneer Square art gallery in 1995, Linda Farris had no plan to get back in the business, but after two years in Europe seeing the work of younger artists (many of them Americans better known abroad than at home) she found herself once again drawn to what had kept her going 25 years in the often heartbreaking field of selling new art: the role of explorer—treasure hunter, even—breaking unknown ground and bringing the news and booty back to the folks at home.

Farris has never had the temperament (or the wealth) to get deep into the art-collecting bag: She wants the work at her elbow, where she can see it, not appreciating quietly in a vault somewhere. After returning from Europe and filling the walls of her (former storefront) home, it occurred to her that there might well be other people who felt the same way—people who love fine visual art but don't buy it because they lack the

HER NEW ENTERPRISE (it's called ContemporaryArtProject LLC) depends on discovering two or three dozen people who fill that bill—and are able to pony up enough money to make the effort worthwhile: $15,000 a year for three years is what Farris is asking of participants, who co-own her acquisitions, which then circulate among the group. This is a lot of cash, but no more than you'd pay, say, over a three-year lease on a Mercedes SL500 (and if you're not in the market for one of those, bet you know someone who is).

In a way, the lease simile is highly appropriate, because Farris isn't encouraging participants in her project (she has about 15 lined up so far) to look on the money they put in as an investment. On the contrary, the plan is that after the three years of test-flight are over, the works acquired will be donated to museums. Donors, of course, get a tax break for giving art to nonprofits. But Farris isn't interested in the kind of blue-chip properties that are bound to hold their value in the short term. She likes it out there on the edge, where prices haven't yet nosed above $20,000-$25,000, where the air is thin and cold and bracing—and today's hot number might just look in three years about as snazzy as a pair of houndstooth polyester slacks.

The only security Farris offers her associates is her own intuition, acumen, and taste—that and the certainty of a highly enjoyable ride for their money as the accumulating collection bicycles its way round the members' homes three to six months at a time. Her acquisitions so far don't exclude mainline abstraction—Karin Davie's candy-rainbow Distraction, a certain rangy looseness of treatment apart, could have been created in the heyday of Op—but concentrate in what could be called New Figuration. In the CAP collection already is Cloud, a recent work by Kim Dingle, who, like Cotton, draws on subjects saturated with kitsch (in this case an overdressed little girl in a raging tantrum) to deliver a jolt of pure visual energy. Photography also is included in early acquisitions: Sue de Beer's enormous color print of impossibly entwined identical twins and performance artist Zhang Huan's document of a mountaintop human dog pile.

For Farris, CAP is an experiment: "I don't know of anything that's ever been done quite like this. Some collectors in Picasso's circle in turn-of-the-century Paris went in for collective collecting, but they thought of it as investment and broke up shortly after, maybe because they thought of it as investment. But even if people decide this isn't for them, they've been introduced to the joy of having art part of their lives. Maybe they'll even end up collectors themselves."

For all the hefty sum required to become a player, CAP is a revolutionary challenge to the rusty machinery of the contemporary art market. For a lot of reasons, most of us encounter cutting-edge art in the sales gallery or the museum, where its impact is mediated if not distorted by commercial and ideological considerations respectively. To get close to the heart of a work of art, there is no substitute for direct, close-up, long-term association—for living with it. The vulgar art consumer, clich頨as it, is looking for something that will "look good over the sofa." The problem with that tired sarcasm is that, for 20th-century art at least, over the sofa is where art belongs. And if mediocre art will look good there, first-rate work will look terrific.

Read our picks for the fall's best visual arts.

 
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