For good reason, museums value being able to selectively choose which artists may display works in their esteemed halls. Institutions love control. But what happens when they surrender that curatorial power for the greater good? Something like Genius: 21 Century: Seattle at the Frye Art Museum. Comprised of artists that have won The Stranger’s annual Genius Awards, the collection offers a fairly diverse sampling of the city’s creative community (which makes sense because The Stranger understandably wouldn’t want to appear complacent by handing out Genius Awards to similar creators year after year). The ambitious collection features over 65 artists (spanning the gamut of medium specializations), 20 commissions, and a slew of performances and talks occurring until Genius closes its run on January 10. And Genius totally works… just not exactly in the way the Frye intended.
A glut of tremendous local works fill the Frye (and spills outside the museum’s walls) for Genius. The exhibit’s opening wall features Victoria Haven’s Studio X, a video piece which projects two views of the rapid change in Seattle’s urban landscape from her South Lake Union apartment. Overlooking construction on one side and the Seattle Center across SR 99 on the other, it's her tenth studio after being kicked out of the previous nine. By presenting these basic window views with stark simplicity (Haven updates the footage every two weeks), the video highlights the downside of Seattle’s current boom for the artist class.
These concepts are further explored by SuttonBeresCuller and Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. SuttonBeresCuller looks at the unrelenting upward push in an effectively cartoonish manner with You Always Leave Me Wanting More. The installation features large aluminum red arrows adorned with casino-like rows of illuminating light bulbs that burst violently from the floor, shattering the wooden ground as their diagonal paths reach toward the ceiling in an endless pursuit of more. Lead Pencil studio’s contribution to Genius is twofold. Inside the building, charcoal, graphite, and paint drawings look at an excavated Northwest (A Clearing, where a wooded roadway increasingly seems overrun by blank billboards, is especially on point). Outside, in the gravel lot by the building’s northwest corner, the excavation becomes tangible in Thereafter. The site-specific sculpture finds a towering light post and slab of concrete resting on top of a mound of dirt from nearby construction sites. Like many of the neighborhoods in the area, Thereafter is a piece of art quite literally destined to erode more and more throughout the course of Genius.
The dance/performance team zoe|juniper all but steal the show with We were. The duo explores ideas of memory in the danced body—what is objective, perspective, experienced, and imagined—with an absolutely stunning gallery full of thread curtains that feature dancers projected upon them, walls covered scrawled with movement annotations, and a series of live performances in the space.
But Genius offers a contrast to this action with plenty of calmer artistic reflections. In SonicArchiTextile, Shabazz Palaces and artist Nep Sidhu collaborate to create a sacred space of ambient music (“Ecdysis”) and massive triangulated wool tapestries to honoring Malcolm X (Malcolm’s Smile). DK Pan’s Tsunami Capable Tide Stations > West Coast offers a meditative sense of serenity as one-minute time-lapse videos from 38 tide stations convey an impressionistic sense of the western coastline. There’s also room in the exhibit for Genius winners that don’t work in visual mediums, most notably poet Maged Zaher, who selected paintings from the Frye’s founding collection and wrote poetry to present alongside them (some of which is printed only in Arabic, intentionally forcing visitors to seek out guides for their meaning).
The most striking thing about Genius is how each artist has their own little semi-secluded gallery space, and there’s no a natural flow between each artist’s area. The Frye’s intent was to highlight a sort of mindshare in the Seattle community, but instead each segment feels like a little world unto itself. The museum’s failure to illustrate that point actually makes for a much better exhibit. Instead of forcing things together to try and showcase a united Seattle arts scene, Genius becomes a creative solar system. These artists have all created their own little planets with starkly different topography and environments. The idea of universal creative interconnectedness in local arts scenes is routinely overblown. There’s no false pretense presented that the actions on planet Maged Zaher are having a cosmic impact on planet zoe|juniper. Genius is an exercise in stargazing at a local cultural tableau that spans well beyond what we can see with the naked eye. Great distances separate these celestial bodies, but they’re all rotating around the same star that is Seattle.
Genius: 21 Century: Seattle
Thru Jan 10, Frye Art Museum, Free