When Fred Birchman titled his latest Francine Seders Gallery exhibit The River Is Moving, he paid homage to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and also to Seattle artist Michael Spafford, whose iconic visualization of the poem stretches along a corridor of McCaw Hall. Like Stevens and Spafford, Birchman’s creative language is one of economy and innuendo.
One of Seattle’s underappreciated talents, Birchman is a masterful draftsman whose technique never gets in the way of his lightness of being. In this strong show of mixed media drawings and one sculptural installation, Birchman basically presents subliminal blueprints, records of a mind working overtime to sort things out. If you could diagram dreams, they would look like this.
The drawings depict arcane contraptions, strung together with levers and pulleys that go nowhere. Birchman loves tools and in past shows has created his own fanciful sculptural adaptations, generally dysfunctional and hilarious (with a nod of appreciation to Jim Dine for his series of exquisite tool drawings). Here Birchman again references the old-fashioned tools of design and construction: true-lines and drafting tables, templates, vices and winches. The parts are substantial, beautifully rendered in three-dimensional space, but it’s all hanging together by a thread and a prayer. With layers of pentimento—coffee stained, smudged, and annotated with lists and mundane remarks—the images look labored over and then abandoned, out of time. They could have been unearthed in some medieval alchemist’s workshop. Images such as Disaster Plan: Plate 2—an endless, mostly smudged, erased, and empty sheet of paper, with a few uncertain objects sprouting in odd perspective here and there—go looking for logic where there is none.
Birchman’s work is always playful, but resonates at a deep frequency. The sculptural installation, The River Is Moving, brings together a cluster of misshapen poles, patched together and flimsy, each topped by a single little black bird house, perch extended. A few are tethered to makeshift weights or ineffectual-looking anchors, slack against a current we can’t see. An enormous sense of hope and fragility pervades the piece, as if each house were a person, trying to maintain a point of stability in a turbulent, overwhelming world. Or as if each were a little planet, like our own, endlessly spinning in the great unknown.
Fred Birchman: The River Is Moving
Thru June 16, Francine Seders Gallery