Theme of Northwest Annual Show could be angst, says judge

By Elizabeth Bryant

Special to the P‑I

“Artists are like grapes,” says Benny Andrews.  “It takes a lot of grapes to make a little brandy: it takes a lot of artists to make a little good art.”

Andrews is a working artist and professor of art at City University in New York, with a background as a National En­dowment for the Arts visual arts program director.  He was in Seattle Oct. 20 to jury the 1990 Northwest Annual, selecting 178 pieces out of 900 artworks submitted from around the state.

The show opens at the Center on Contemporary Art tonight, with bands, videos and an awards ceremony.  John Firman, director of the Washington Arts Commission, will present five artists with awards of $1,000 each.

Andrews did the judging in less than a day and compared the process to a doctor’s diagnosis: What matters is not the time it takes to prescribe a pill.  One could, however, quibble over the thoroughness of the examination.  Andrews allowed that if he had more time, more work would have been eliminated.  While the overall show is good it would have been helped by additional thinning.

Although Andrews included some remarkably naive work and one piece that seems like an inside joke on the idea of Northwest regional art (dried kelp and clamshells), he found the work submitted to be comparable to the rest of the country ‑ not particularly “regional.”

“There’s a lot of barbed wire, flags, penises and angst,” he said.  “A lot of angst And crucifixes, don’t forget crucifixes.  It’s like germs in the air; everyone’s breathing them in.  There was so much angst I couldn’t help finding some really good ones.”

If the strong suit in the show is angst (here represented by heavy, neo‑expressionistic figurative painting with strong color), it is also the area that needs weeding.  What is lacking, as Andrews pointed out, is restraint.  One finds oneself searching for subtlety.  Odd pieces leap out: small prints and elegant photos, or the visual oasis of James Wills’ geometric landscape in juxtaposed red, orange, lavender and greens.

Jill Reynolds presents a revision of God, snake and apple in her sparely awkward scrawl.  She has extended her preschool script to wobbly glass letters on the frame, Larry Larson, a Seattle artist not represented by a gallery, combined the predominant paint style with a delicacy of color and touch reminiscent of Marc Chagall.

While Larson, like Reynolds, incorporates kindergarten pencil drawings into his background, Scott Frish scratches, draws or collages into thick, gritty paint ‘like the late French painter Jean Duuffèt.  Alyson Shotz, while  painting in the show’s dominant expressive mode creates direct clarity of color and image.

A number of sculptures plug in, including Clark Warren’s scary bedside lamp/operating cart of surgical instruments.  Enca Buchanan and Jeff Casper’s collaborative “Zoetrope.” with a rusty, slotted barrel that spins to produce primitive moving pictures, is wonderful.  Russell Hamilton’s untitled mixed‑media sculpture goes beyond fetishism: ‘the fragmented figures seem embalmed.

Pat Cranage’s “Oil War Rug,” with a center square of torsolike cars surrounded by tanks and flanked by oil wells, may be the ‘best of a large category of political art in the show—plus it can be walked on.  Steve Reinhart’s “Planting the Seeds of Democracy.” depicting the sowing of Cokes, pizzas and refrigerators in a socialist folk-art style is also terrific and very funny.

One of the largest, categories of art, and the one least seen in the galleries, is work dealing with sexual poitics and oppression of women.  Many pieces confront incest.  Vicki M.  Stolsen’s book of firsthand accounts mixed with family snapshots and old child‑rearing texts is the most powerful of these.  Stokley Towles’ teatime parable of Freud is a nice idea, ‘but suffers in the execution.

An open, blind competition juried by.a outsider can serve to establish a possibly more objective view or a regional art scene than that offered by the galleries.  It also can serve as a form of feedback for unaffiliated artists, both to evaluate their own work against that of others working in a similar vein, and to see what it is that gallery owners and curators view on a regular basis.  (How can one not reinvent the wheel if other wheels are never seen?)

This year’s annual does surprisingly well on all, accounts.  While the work of some’ of the better‑known artists ‘really does stand out (Michael Fajan’s “Perched” has never looked so good; Marsha Burns’ photo of a Native American teen has, a collarbone to die for), much of the really exciting work is by little‑known artists.

While admitting biases and the capriciousness of‑the whole process, Andrews also says that this was an exceptionally good show.  This area seems to maintain its own identity, not looking over its shoulder to San Francisco , Los Angeles.or New York.

To all those whose work was not accepted, Andrews says: “Don’t get too excited.  Exhibitions are like buses, and another one will always come along.”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Friday, November 2, 1990, What’s Happening