Buster Simpson, The Crow’s Nest, 1980, photo documentation of the agitprop performance. Courtesy of Hearst Newspapers LLC/Seattlepi.com/Frye Art Museum.

Can art be pharmaceutical?

Seattle artist Buster Simpson thinks so. He’s the guy who made national news in the 1980s slinging disks of limestone into the Hudson River, an action he titled Hudson River Purge. The news media dubbed the disks—intended to de-acidify the polluted waters—“River Rolaids” or “Tums for Mother Nature.”

Simpson lives at the juncture where environmental activism meets aesthetics. For more than 40 years he’s been turning ideas, found objects, puns, and the detritus of urban life into mind-expanding metaphors. He figures if he can get people to think the way artists do, the planet and its inhabitants will be healthier. Now, in the show Buster Simpson//Surveyor, the Frye Art Museum is attempting to recap a career that has ranged from 1970s guerrilla art installations and ad-hoc street performances to nationally celebrated actions and commissioned public artworks. 

Buster Simpson, Woodman, 1974, b&w photograph. Courtesy of the artist.
That’s a tall order. Curator Scott Lawrimore collaborated with Simpson to stay as true as possible to the spirit of the work: They ripped through walls and recycled the material into sculpture stands, hand-lettered wall texts and interspersed photo and video documentation with artifacts and mixed-media sculptural work in an effort to familiarize audiences with the wide-ranging scope of Simpson’s career. It’s a handsome show. Yet, as always with ephemeral, site-specific or performance-based art, the museum setting at times chafes against the conceptual foundations of the work. How can you encapsulate the experience of Simpson in his 1970s street performances as Woodman, struggling along near demolition sites with an unwieldy bundle of reclaimed wood strapped on his back? The whole point was to get art out of museums and into real-time interactions with people. Those unfamiliar with Simpson’s work may get bogged down in a preponderance of reading material, video and photo documentation better suited to a book or website. (A catalog of the show is forthcoming later in the summer.)

Buster Simpson//Surveyor begins outside the museum and that’s where this art is most at home. A concrete and tree root sculpture Secured Embrace­—a lyrical union of man-made and natural forms—adds drama to the reflecting pond, where a handful of pixilated frog shapes, made from water-sweetening limestone, creep along the bottom. Funky yellow barricades, seemingly crafted from bent iron bedsteads, cradle trees on the parking strip and draw our attention to their silent work as air purifiers. 

Buster Simpson, Secured Embrace, 2011–present, cast concrete, tree root wads, stainless steel cable. Collection of the artist.

Inside, there’s much elegance and humor to be found, as Simpson plays off art historical icons such as Venus de Milo and The Last Supper (or Judy Chicago’s feminist icon The Dinner Party.) Simpson’s proclivity for crows seems spot-on. Ingenious, provocative scavengers, adaptable to urban environments and revered in Northwest Native cultures (where Earth stewardship is a traditional value) they seem like perfect emblems for Simpson himself.

Buster Simpson//Surveyor
Thru Oct 13, Frye Art Museum, free

For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Simpson's exhibit, watch this Art Zone with Nancy Guppy clip.

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