Seattle, New Wild West Art World

Our Paris correspondent, Matthew Rose, continues his stateside journey through the West Coast, reporting on the Seattle Art Fair and the Western ambiance he found in some of the art in that Pacific coast city.

The Two Bells Tavern is a Seattle hipster bar with a reputation. With its trio of tattooed waitresses, tough guy clientele, beat up wooden bar and a dozen tap beers behind it, Two Bells also offers the extra mile: A rotating exhibition of local art talent. I was lucky this summer to catch Chris Crites’s Sad Stories, an in-tune collection of crime scene paintings.

Ten 8 x 10 inch acrylic-on-panel monochrome depictions of murdered thugs (and dolls), gangland killings and dead dogs line the walls. Lurking in almost every brick alleyway, Crites tells some tale of betrayal or disaster in a love song comparable to Weegee’s stark and brutal photos of slayings and mobsters. Seen from across the bar, they appear like dusty windows; up close these “front page” paintings meticulously capture the fading and once-violent frontier Seattle was just a half century ago.

Seattle Art Fair’s Wild West Show

Indeed, this Pacific Northwest city might very well be the newest frontier for artists, galleries and museums as tech money pours in and dealers and galleries chase new clientele. In early August, the Seattle Art Fair pulled into town with more than 100 exhibitors from Europe, Asia and every corner in North America.

“The crowds are great and interested, but the buyers are not urgent,” said Monica Reyes, founder of Vancouver’s Back Gallery, though a ceramic vase with an axe smashed into it entitled “Trophée VI – 2017” by Paris-born Laurent Craste was a spectacular hit. Other works by Craste feature delicate Delftware ceramics with carpentry nails spiked through their bodies, while still others are pinned on the wall like fat Dutch butterflies.

Laurent Craste Trophy VI
Laurent Craste, “Trophée VI,” 2017, porcelain, glaze, gold, axe, 49,5 x 35 x 20.9 cm. (19 1/2 x 13 3/4 x 8 1/16 inches). Image courtesy of Back Gallery Project.

Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery offered up with a one-person exhibition of Sarah McRae Morton’s oil on canvas works meshing culture and history paintings into one 19th century vista. Morton’s soft lens realism of a fur trader carrying his dog across a river, a pioneer riding a bear bareback (and playing a banjo) or “Watching Washington Crossing from the Mare of the Rhine” are all exquisite and compelling. Her indigo blue flower-patterned design on a pig, The Map for the Truest Wanderer, is an ode to Jamie Wyeth’s farm animal paintings and a riff, perhaps, on Wim Delvoye’s sculpture of a tattooed sow.

A handful of master works by Picasso, de Kooning, Mark Rothko and more contemporary pieces by environmental land art prince Andy Goldsworthy, are among the standouts along with the curious and wonderful works of self-taught Seattle-based carver Dan Webb’s The Visitor – a robed, ghost-like totem trapped in a tree trunk. Ross Bonfanti’s altered toy animals, like Angel 2, a concrete-stuffed teddy bear with a dozen kitchen knives in its back, is also wonderfully ludicrous and oddly mesmerizing.

For the faithful, Seattle grunge legend and late Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, returned his home city with a pair of chilling paintings at the newly-launched UTA Artist Space booth. Cobain, a tortured and talented heroin addict, committed suicide with a shotgun in 1994. Insecticide and Fistula capture the singer’s angst and death wish, a cowboy anthem of his particular wild west.

artblog mcrae morton watching washington crossing from the back of the mare of the rhine
Sarah McRae Morton, “Watching Washington Crossing from the back of the Mare of the Rhine,” 60 in. x 40 in., oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Foster/White Gallery.

Paul Allen’s MoPop, Star Trek & Infinity Rooms

Paul Allen might be Seattle’s fiercest culture warriors. The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire behind Vulcan Ventures not only launched the Seattle Art Fair three years ago, his group created the Museum of Pop Culture – “MoPop”. MoPop (once called the Experience Music Project or EMP Museum) is housed in a massive Frank Gehry designed “spaceship” and filled with hundreds of celebrity vintage guitars and sci fi relics like the “bridge” from the original StarTrek –and even a complete StarTrek historical timeline. Curated exhibitions like Mick Rock’s David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era photographs, and traveling shows like Jim Hensen Muppets, make MoPop a must-see one-of-a-kind museum, even from the outside.

Seattle’s “downtown” gallery scene is a bit thin but there are a handful of small, artist-run and non-profit spaces at the south end of town worth checking out. Zinc, Soil and Method are standouts. These venues are less commercial and one is often greeted by an enthusiastic artist working the space. When I was there in late July, though, the biggest crowds, were congregating at SAM – The Seattle Art Museum.

SAM’s Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms elicited insane excitement and nearly infinite lines that slipped out the door down the street – even for ticket holders. Did I hear right that someone was actually evicted from one of the 88-year old Japanese artist’s mirrored rooms because he or she stayed more than the 2 minute allowance? Seattle friends were talking about this, but I couldn’t confirm it. The city, though, celebrated the Japanese artist’s work with polka dot banners along the 1st Avenue. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to slip in to see the Infinity Rooms, and missed the reflective mind-blowing experience. So, as any artist and art critic might do in a strange and unfamiliar city, I headed back to The Two Bells Tavern for another look at Chris Crites’ Sad Stories to think about my own stories (!) and hit that tap for a cold IPA or two with the friendly and probably dangerous locals.

artblog crites la river 02 17 1955
Chris Crites, “Los Angeles River. 02-17-1955,” 10 in. x 8 in., acrylic on panel, 2016. Collection of artist.