Acquired Taste

The new city gallery shows a great municipal collection.

SEATTLE COLLECTS

City Space Gallery 701 Fifth Ave. (Bank of America Tower), 3rd floor, 206-749-9525, free 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. ends Tues., Dec. 31

UNLESS YOU'RE a city employee, you probably haven't seen many of the 3,000 pieces owned by the Seattle Arts Commission (SAC). Yet it's one of the most wide-ranging public collections anywhere of contemporary Northwest art—paintings, photographs, sculpture, ceramics, and glass art, by both well-known and emerging artists. Scattered throughout municipal offices, meeting rooms, and hallways, the works had never been gathered into a single location for public viewing until July of this year, when the small City Space gallery made its debut.

The Seattle Arts Commission had long discussed the idea of a central space, but budget restrictions always got in the way. Then, about a year ago, Bank of America shut the community gallery at its downtown headquarters in a cost-cutting measure. Equity Office, the firm that owns the BoA tower, remained very interested in using the space for art (particularly since its movable walls were designed specifically for that purpose) and offered it to SAC rent-free.

This past summer, curator Beth Sellars and her crew set up the premiere, "Northwest Masters," an impressive selection that included work by Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Paul Horiuchi, and even the screwy rock tracings of John Cage (who qualified for inclusion with his brief stay at Cornish in the 1930s). Sellars' eagerness to present all these works together for the first time was readily apparent—the jam-packed walls came close to provoking claustrophobia. A breezy, busy survey, "Masters" was also one of the most vibrant shows of modern painting and works on paper that Seattle had seen in quite a while.

Sellars, a curator for a number of museums in the region over the past 25 years (including the Henry), has managed SAC's entire collection since 1999. "If you're really diligent, you can find them," she says of the pieces she acquires and installs in the city's 35 buildings. "But it's much nicer to have them in a space where you can see everything. The themes we can put together with the collection are limitless."

IN CONTRAST TO the gallery's premiere, which was largely a serious look back at this region's senior dignitaries of art, the current show, Seattle Collects, presents a glimpse, often playful, of today's best and brightest. Sellars has cut back on the number of works, giving them (and visitors) room to breathe. The selection centers around the winners of this year's Seattle Artists Program in visual arts, an annual juried competition that awards money to about a dozen artists. The city, which can't hand out dollars without receiving something in return, sends Sellars into the artists' studios to acquire work equal in value.

From Phil Roach, one of this year's award winners, Sellars selected Levels, a series of dioramas housed inside innocuous plywood boxes, set at different levels. To see inside, you must peer through a small lens (Roach calls it an "oculus") that miniaturizes the meticulously arranged, and somewhat creepy, scenes of urban decay. Dimly lit and confined by the lens, they may remind animation fans of Jorgen Vestergaard's unnerving sets for his puppets. But Roach lets you witness only the setting for later, imagined drama; it's the jumbled, crumbling spaces of what appears to be an abandoned home: a basement, living room, and attic, all mysteriously connected by the same tiny painting appearing in each.

There's another type of imagined existence inside Brad Miller's Elevator Life, a large stainless-steel panel of elevator buttons in a 10-by-10 grid. Pressing, and therefore lighting, several of them at once activates a computer program called Life, which was developed by mathematician John Conway in 1970 (it helped spawn the study of artificial life): The lights turn on and off, based on certain rules that define living and dying for neighboring buttons. The piece archly comments on life in the office, where success depends on a similar adherence to strict behaviors.

The show also has fine work in traditional media. A series of delicate ink and watercolor paintings by Pat DeCaro, titled First Marriage, intertwine organic and vaguely human forms in muted duotonelike colors to suggest the complexities of relationships. It's both soothing and troubling. Photographer Thomas Harris says his pictures of sculpturelike objects in dark rooms—which, it turns out, are actually miniature models shot up close— "produce in me either a feeling of dread or just pure excitement." I felt that, too. Craig Barber's dreamy shots of quiet streets at night have a similar effect. Charlotte Meyer's 3-foot-high cast-iron sculptures, Two Dresses, should be noted, too, for their exquisite textures and graceful vaselike forms (I was tempted to place flowers in them).

The exhibition includes a few older pieces that, for various reasons, curators have had trouble getting out of storage. One such work is Luke Blackstone's delightfully intimidating 8-foot-tall Not to Code, a contraption pieced together from an air compressor, a mason jar, closed-circuit television, a file cabinet, a motion detector, and a toilet's copper float, among other objects. Looking like the innards of some unfinished robot, the machine greets visitors by swinging its single arm, which then falls and shudders, as if sadly acknowledging its limits for human mimicry.

The choices don't all succeed. There are a couple of folky, amateurish paintings that are decidedly out of place. And though Sellars clearly has affection for geometric sketches, several studies in angles and lines seem undeveloped and too much alike. But City Space is upending the belief that municipal art tends to be bland and simply decorative. Though the city specifies a few taboos—nudity, cigarettes, drinking, and skeletons, for example—Sellars says that the gallery, as a public rather than municipal space, would likely broaden the range of acquisitions and allow her to show work that's found few takers, such as John Feodorov's satirical Office Deity. The painting (in the current show) depicts an enthroned, cigar-smoking executive floating above the world and surrounded by tiny winged assistants. The work may not sit well amongst city officials, but on the gallery wall, it looks superb.

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