Frye Art Museum operates in an atypical manner, compared to many of its peer institutions. While free admission might be the most obvious way it sets itself apart, the museum’s Founding Collection plays a bigger role in shaping the Frye’s artistic identity. The core works shuffle in and out of storage, constantly being rehung and rearranged in an attempt to shed a new light on these classic paintings. The efforts with the Founding Collection attempt imbue deeper meaning to art that patrons have seen before by offering a fresh context. That curatorial idea branches into the modern in the Frye’s latest exhibit, To: Seattle | Subject: Personal.
The exhibit takes a look back at the changes in Seattle and the artistic community during the past seven years via the works the Frye acquired during that period, under the leadership of its now-departed director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. It’s been a time of simultaneous growth and social (and spiritual) turmoil for the city, one that Birnie Danzker has found to be “really devastating” in ways for Seattle artists. She lays out the emotional groundwork for the exhibit—colored by her personal experience during 9/11—in the show’s titular letter, which greets patrons when they enter the museum space. During her seven years at the helm, she attempted to buck institutional conventions, such as the idea that a museum should always be striving to show new works and in order to never repeat itself. By continually reshowing the same pieces, the Frye has made them part of an ongoing discourse, rather then just hanging them once and then banishing them to storage for years. To: Seattle embodies that ideal.
The narrowing of the focus to the past seven years gives some pieces in the collection extra pop. When presented in the 2015 solo exhibit Future Ruins, Rodrigo Valenzuela’s Hedonic Reversal—a photographic series of constructed sculptures of decay—felt instantly forgettable because of its overly on-the-nose metaphor about the current transformation of Seattle. But in the context of To: Seattle, the pieces work because they’re merely a piece in the bigger puzzle of this period in the city’s history instead of the entire focus of an exhibition. The message nudges the viewer rather than bashing them over the head. Presenting less provides a more effective emotional impact.
Part of To: Seattle’s effectiveness comes from Birnie Danzker's taking the time to reflect and reexamine the deeper history of the artworks. This is not an exhibit where you can overlook the wall labels. The extended descriptions not only help explain the context of the original exhibits where the works were first displayed, but also flesh out their backgrounds even further with fresh historical information (such as Degenerate Art Ensemble’s personal connection to 1992 murder of Bob Buchanan Jr. in Olympia).
The pieces in To: Seattle also receive context makeovers changes via reimagined presentations. The most notable change comes courtesy Liu Ding’s Untitled [Serpent motif] and Untitled [Frame motif] series of paintings. In 2012, the Chinese artist created a slew of partial recreations of Franz von Stuck’s Die Sünde (part of the Frye’s Founding Collection) over in China—often having other artists paint them and merely putting his signature on them once finished—in order to comment on the commodification of art and bulk manufacturing processes. When originally presented at the Frye, they were stacked or clumped together to underscore the lack of value of art when it’s just laying around. But for To: Seattle, the works are hung side-by-side, showcasing the pure repetition of the process and highlighting the subtle variations between each new recreation. The series still touches on the core issues, but takes a completely different approach to do so. On a much subtler presentational note, something as simple as employing a bust to display how the Black Constellation’s artfully crated headdress of repurposed materials, Ode to Octavia: Neo-Ancient Taliswoman, would actually be worn instead of having it again sit flat in a display case instantly grants the item so much more personal resonance and power.
Certainly, not every piece improves when stripped of it’s original show’s context and presented in To: Seattle. Leo Saul Berk’s Clinkers (probably my favorite piece in the Frye collection) is part of a larger series of works based on his childhood domicile—the Ford House—and it losses a little luster without the accompaniment of Berk’s other parallel creations. The photograph just doesn’t have the same impact without a greater sense of home. Some works that were already part of disparate group shows—like D.K. Pan’s hypnotically mesmerizing Tsunami Capable Tide Station > West Coast video project from Genius | 21 Century | Seattle—neither gain or lose anything in the context of To: Seattle because they always felt like standalone works.
There’s one other aspect that set the Frye apart from its peers which fully resonates in To: Seattle—active creation. Almost all of the works in To: Seattle were commissioned by the Frye. In these past seven years under Birnie Danzker, the Frye has become an active part of the creative community, not merely a reflection of it. While typical institutions search for art worth highlighting and hanging on their walls, the Frye has gone out and actually helped make new art a physical reality. To: Seattle | Subject: Personal isn’t really a love letter to our city, it’s the presentation of an overstuffed care package.
To: Seattle | Subject: Personal
Thru Jan 8, Frye Art Museum, Free