Bumbershoot Visual Arts, Part I

This year's visual arts exhibits have been moved out of the Northwest Rooms to two venues. First and largest is the Fisher Pavilion, traditional home to Flatstock, which has been moved (sorry) to the Center House. There are four shows at Fisher Pavilion; then you can head up the steps west to the Seattle Center Pavilion (next to the skate park) for a stand-alone Elvis-inspired group show (more on that later). The huge eye-catcher as you enter Fisher Pavilion, front and center is Dylan Neuwirth's NOW, which looks like a giant Ferris wheel made of neon. Pictured at right, NOW is 12 feet in diameter, hangs from the ceiling, and is carefully tended by representatives of Western Neon, which fabricated the piece.

Because it's so prominent, you're hoping Neuwirth's piece will do a little more. It's round, but it doesn't rotate. Unlike a commercial sign, it doesn't blink or flash. The colors may shift among the neon tubes, but I didn't have patience enough to wait. At Bumbershoot, an artist really has to engage the harried visitor with some pizzaz, some interactive element, or they'll just keep wandering. NOW suggests the color wheel, of course, but it lacks much fairground appeal.

In the next galley to the east is a rather poignant, posthumous tribute to Christopher Martin Hoff (1976-2012), who died earlier this year. As I wrote in our Bumbershoot Encyclopedia, the Georgia transplant Hoff arrived in Seattle a decade ago, and soon began to learn about his new home by painting it. Until his untimely death in March, Hoff specialized in plein-air painting--setting up shop on the sidewalk and documenting our viaducts, Dumpsters, and cranes at the port. In his streetscape oils, emptied of people, we see the vacant alleys of Pioneer Square, parking lots filled only with graffiti, construction sites lying dormant beneath tarps and waiting for the recession to end. It's like the city is holding its breath.

I first encountered Hoff's work at Linda Hodges Gallery three years ago. The same gallery put up an August memorial show this summer, and several paintings from this much larger exhibition will soon be seen at Queen Anne's Fountainhead Gallery (opening reception 5-7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 8), with an emphasis on his first four years in Seattle.

Still, this is the biggest and best overview you're likely to see of his plein-air work. (You can also visit his website, which is currently soliciting GPS info from your smartphone photos to identify the many sites where he painted the city.) At the center of the exhibit, curated by Beth Sellars, is a rather sad display of Hoff's easel and materials, as he used to set himself up to paint on the sidewalk, umbrella over the canvas. Here at Bumbershoot, visitors seemed drawn into the maze of familiar streetscapes and Seattle icons. They pass by Hoff's empty, ghostly painting station as we pedestrians also used to pass him while working on Capitol Hill or in Pioneer Square.

Whether you're trying to track down his vantage points for the GPS project or not, this is a show that makes you feel like walking, to see the city as Hoff did.

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