Moment Magnitude: Home is Where the Hurt is

Clinkers – Leo Saul Berk, 2012
Duratrans, sculptural light box
78 x 65 x 5 in. Collection of the artist.

The Frye’s Moment Magnitude exhibit has an open curatorial approach that allows the pieces to be treated and examined in numerous ways. It is not a closed narrative, and there are no doubt many threads that one may miss even after repeat visits, but one salient thread includes themes of home, community and personal and private spaces—outside vs inside. For an institution celebrating its 60th anniversary and a reinvigorated program that is eager to spill out into the community and draw more viewers into the world of art—always free of charge—the Moment Magnitude exhibit is an apt affirmation of the museum’s principles that also speaks to issues relevant to the surrounding community at this moment in time. The works of Buster Simpson, Tad Hirsch, Leo Saul Berk, Chris Bruch, Rebecca Brown and Doug Nufer all examine matters of shelter and shared spaces. Individually, they have unique perspectives. Collectively, they create a more complete exploration of what one calls a home and a community at a time when the city is experiencing major growing pains.

Despite the natural barriers in all directions, Seattle has only recently been seeing developments that aim to truly turn the city center and surrounding neighborhoods into dense developments. Some of these developments are more ill-conceived than others, and areas like Capitol Hill—once known for its quirky, gritty charm—now lie in the shadow of hastily fabricated, mixed-use behemoths. In the wake of the housing bubble bursting, some developments were made (too) cheaply and will quickly deteriorate, but not before many of the artists, small businesses and longtime residents are priced out by rising real estate costs.

The Capitol Hill community has been vocal and has used its social leverage to mitigate the negative impact of development on the existing community. The rhetoric reveals just how relevant the outside/inside dichotomy is to the character of communities and how they function. In a few cases, the battles fought by residents have preserved historic buildings, but increasingly one hears arguments that this is only for a misguided sense of nostalgia—or even a sense of entitlement from the people who made the community what it is. This misses a point that the Frye exhibit surreptitiously makes in its call for community engagement: there is a spirit of openness and fecundity in any truly thriving community, and most new developments are decisively sealed and sterile, monolithic. A new development may be trendy, but it may lack longevity, even the ability to acquire what is valuable to an established community—what is distinctly worn and peculiar to it, what has a continuity with the history of the community and with the surrounding buildings, as opposed to the flat and generic architecture superseding it, hermetically sealed from each other. The new spaces bespeak a suburban demand for isolation and shielded comfort at odds with a genuine urban community. In time, perhaps the shoddier buildings will deteriorate into porous hives for artists whose priorities are their work, not comfort—or even safety.

In Moment Magnitude, the Frye’s curators and artists have acknowledged the immediate importance of these changes in the social structure and infrastructure of the community. Just beyond the lobby visitors encounter a large photograph of artist Buster Simpson bundling bits of broken wood before a fenced-off, vacant pit. This pit would become the Harbor Steps by the Seattle waterfront, but had previously been a building filled with artist studios. The loss of affordable spaces for artists to live and create is a perennial problem, and leaves some cities as places where art is exhibited, but not easily made. Just recently, another hive of artists was demolished—the 619 building in Pioneer Square. This was in some ways less problematic because the building itself was certain to collapse during any major quake and was no longer safe, but its demolition was nonetheless a blow to artists who had relied on it as an affordable space to create and display their work.

But communities outside of Capitol Hill and populations other than artists are also facing major changes, and these communities have largely been unheard or unacknowledged as their residents are also priced out—or forced out by new developments. In neighboring First Hill (aka Pill Hill for the many hospitals and medical facilities in the neighborhood), just South of the Frye Museum is the Yesler Terrace development—Seattle’s first and only remaining large public housing development. It is an historically important community, as it was also the first racially integrated public housing development in the US. But times have changed and the land is now needed for new, mixed-income developments, according to the Seattle City Council, which has approved a plan to demolish Yesler Terrace. This will displace the current residents—approximately 1200 people—and the rising prices of real estate in all surrounding neighborhoods will make it difficult for them to find a new home in the vicinity. It is the end of a community, and unfortunately this is nothing extraordinary in any growing city. It certainly isn’t new in Seattle.

The Frye exhibit responds directly to the twilight of Yesler Terrace through the work of Tad Hirsch, whose installation Intangible Effects (No. 1) opened on Saturday the 8th. It is a culmination of seven weeks of workshops at the Yesler Terrace Community Center, wherein youths aged 14 to 18 collected field recordings and interviews. These recordings will be maintained in full in an online archive, but in the installation samples are now contained in a series of cubes with which visitors can interact to “create their own ephemeral compositions.”

The installation may leave one ambivalent. The abstraction of these sincere documents into small pieces that then overlay each other will to some present a melancholy, ghostly portrait of a world that is about to disappear. Others will see it as an artist or institution trivializing and fetishizing the lives and woes of real people. Where is the work that captures the rage and despair that some must feel? Is that something we want or expect from a piece of art? Yesler Terrace is not Guernica by any stretch of the imagination, but it could be argued that the work is too eager to autopsy the community and leave their parts in neat little boxes.

I must break the fourth wall and admit that I felt both ways in turn. On the one hand, it is a lamentable but unalterable fact that public housing is still public land and not guaranteed to any one population. The demolition of Yesler Terrace is not a violent diaspora, but it is the sacrifice of one community for “the greater good.” Beyond the utilitarian rationale, there is the dispassionate neutrality that we are forced to adopt in doing certain kinds of artistic work, especially of the documentary nature. Hirsch and the Frye are to be commended for engaging a difficult and volatile subject like this development in the first place, and the aural archive that will be created is historically and artistically important. Still, the handling of the installation feels so tidy that I am left a bit uneasy. If I believed that such cognitive dissonance were the point, I would commend the artist, but I am perhaps more pessimistic than Hirsch, and I wonder if many visitors could stand to be more aggressively confronted with the inconvenient messiness of such changes.

Central room of the Frye Exhibit with Leo Saul Berk’s Spider Hole suspended at center. Photo by Spike Mafford.

The inconvenient messiness of life is never invisible on First Hill. Just down the street from the Frye, lines form most every day for St James’ Cathedral Kitchen, which feeds the hungry and homeless. As an avid flaneur, I know of many bushes, alleys, and nooks that often hide cardboard dwellings and tents within blocks of the Frye, so when I saw Chris Bruch’s sculpture of a makeshift dwelling, it seemed that the Frye had indeed brought the outside in. The materials used to construct the enclosure nod are themselves bourgeois symbols of bounty and comfort—shopping carts and lawn chairs—but unrecognizable here, wrapped tightly beneath a heavy tarp.

We have not only the ad hoc home but the street itself in this room. Bruch brings the outside in and the floor to the wall with rubbings of streets and sidewalk. As chaotic and arbitrary as the subject matter may seem, Bruch’s compositions are thoughtful and compelling and they capture peculiarities of Seattle’s sidewalks, including the embedded glass in Pioneer Square that permits light into the underground. To those who recognize these squares alongside the manhole covers, what lies at street level and what lies beneath are both immediate in the placid halls of the Frye.

How startling but how apt a foil are the orderly and exquisite constructions of Leo Saul Berk. In the confrontation of meanings of home and community, Berk’s visual meditations on his years spent as a child in the Ruth Ford House are a polar opposite to the squalor and deprivation of Bruch’s works and evocative of austerity and isolation quite different from the living document of the Yesler Terrace community in Hirsch’s works. The Ruth Ford House was designed by American architect Bruce Goff for the eponymous first occupant and her husband, Ruth and Albert Ford. It was constructed in Aurora, IL by a 25-year old general contractor named Don Tosi, who was the only one willing to attempt Goff’s eccentric design. Among other things, it called for a dome made of wood to crown the entirely circular structure.

It’s uncomfortable living in an idea, being an object instead if a person, which is what Berk and his parents were in effect when they lived in the Ruth Ford House. Here, the building is less a shelter for the inhabitants than the inhabitants are stewards of the building. The building is so high concept and specific to individuals committed to a regimented and austere lifestyle that it becomes an impossible crucible—scorching hot and freezing cold in summer and winter respectively—to a family trying to function in any recognizable way. It aspired to mathematical purity with its round shape and crown, but Tosi could not figure out how to execute the dome as one piece, so he compromised and broke it into sections—arcs and ogives.

Works by Leo Saul Berk. Photo by Stuart Westmorland.

To a child, such a house is an imposition of a form, a spatial dogma. It is a Bachelardian nightmare that defies any archetype of how a house should feel and look. It wore on Berk’s parents and the family eventually sold the building and moved out (They still maintain the second-longest tenure in the house’s history.), but Berk has felt compelled to revisit this formative space in his own work. This is in itself a reminder of how important a space is to us, the spaces that we inhabit and so often take for granted. There is no neutral space, as we are fundamentally affected by a sense or lack of security, of comfort, or even of compatibility within a space.

Berk’s work takes portions of the house and examines them individually. There is almost a sense of forgiveness and absolution, of closure as he confronts the irregularity of these things. It took Berk four attempts, but he was able to solve the riddle of the roof and a small wooden dome hangs as one glorified artifact. There are substantial chunks of green glass embedded in the brickwork of the Ruth Ford House’s central wall, and Berk has created a large backlit print of one such patch that glows from within like emeralds, simultaneously delicious and sinister to behold. The bathtub in the house was pure black, and Berk’s explorations include a video of light gently rippling on the surface of a full tub.

Berk and Bruch occupy adjacent rooms, and their polarized explorations of home and shelter enhance each other: the design-driven crucible opposing the necessity-driven hovel; the ephemeral and chaotic impressions of construction, the rubbings, artifacts without design, including embedded glass that permits light into the subterrane and gritty manholes versus the mathematically perfect and meticulously executed dome, the backlit portrait of embedded glass in the walls. The black bathtub and the rubbings are both abstractions of darkness, circularity, random occurrence (the bubbles in the water) approaching a sort of unity despite their maximalist/minimalist differences. This dichotomy is evident in the two lifestyles represented, as if they are aesthetically and conceptually negative images of each other: the monastic Ruth Ford House and the mendicant tarp construction, the minimalist mind through maximum design, the maximalist experience through minimal design.

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow: Berk’s experience in the Ruth Ford House has made him keenly aware of spaces and their power over us, and how the highly conceived space can fall short of our practical needs when put to the test of physical habitation. There is even a whiff of this in his work Spider Hole. Like Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts of home interiors, the work helps one comprehend the physicality of what we regard as empty space (notable even in the capacious central chamber of the Frye), but it is much more disturbing to our senses—and not just because it looks like it might be the world’s largest marital aid. A spider hole is intended to conceal and house a single soldier, so there is a hostility and desolation to the shape, a fetor and an airlessness that is captured in its lurid golden solidity. This spider hole was modeled after the one in which Saddam Hussein was found hiding, and the shimmering gold color nods also to the gilded opulence of the fallen dictator.

How is it then that I also thought of the new developments of Capitol Hill? I simply can’t fathom…

Throughout these installations and works, we are confronted with the outside/inside dichotomy many times over and the fragility of the membrane separating the two. The great outside is open and free, but hostile. Inside is confining, but also sheltering. Even comfort itself can be considered hostile to the spirit. (Ask any ascetic.) The Frye’s exhibit maps a lot of this, but there are gaps that the viewers can fill with their own contemplation. To supplement this contemplation, the Frye exhibit also hosts many performances and windows into the creative process of artists creating works specific to the site. This brings us to the last installation tied by this thread of home and shelter, the collaboration of Doug Nufer and Rebecca Brown.

Doug Nufer and Rebecca Brown’s collaborative curation of her personal keepsakes and collectibles. Photo by Spike Mafford.

There is a discomfort of another sort that one feels in viewing Doug Nufer’s curio-style curation of objects and books from Rebecca Brown’s home. This is the discomfort of unintentional voyeurism, of walking in one someone unannounced. Brown is an accomplished writer and, apparently, quite a collector of bric-a-brac, too. But she is not arbitrary, as her paraphernalia is in reference to one of four fond subjects: God, Mother, Country, and Rock and Roll. The first two are inherently personal and the latter two become personal in practice, at least as a matter of taste. She uses these objects to fill her space, which in turn keep her inspired as she writes. We imagine a densely inhabited world, unequivocally fashioned of and for its inhabitants, and the viewer may consequently feel more out of place, more like an invader.

We are even given glimpses into the closed world of books that Brown has altered. Pages are pinned open to reveal large sections blacked out or covered with green marker, revealing her chosen message in what is not redacted. This is a mind that is compelled to infuse itself into even objects that are already filled with another’s presence. Through alteration, even the fait accompli of the book becomes a reflection of herself. There is no interior world that the artist/author cannot penetrate.

After the impersonal and austere spaces of Bruch and Berk, Brown’s collections are a shocking nest of personality. Berk’s green glass glowering from darkness becomes almost totemic, his wooden dome a mandala, but here we are confronted with a host of household gods—and a few saints carved from wood and assembled in stained glass. Here is evidence of a space fully marked and imbued with the essence of an individual—a foil to Bruch and Berk, and a complement to Hirsch’s abstracted but personal soundscapes of a community. What better fills a space than sound, after all?

The Ruth Ford House is a monument to a painter who desired a strict, intellectual purity expressed in space to create her work. Meanwhile, Brown’s collections bespeak a sort of comfort that comes through physical intimacy, through filling a space with oneself. This is not a divide between painter and writer (Proust’s cork-lined room and Francis Bacon’s notoriously sordid studio may be offered as counterexamples), nor is it even a divide between extrovert and introvert. It is suggestive of how complex and various humans can be and proof of how widely the creative process varies from person to person. One cannot prescribe one method, for in all things there must remain an interplay of comfort and discomfort, security and vulnerability, a dynamic equilibrium of these things as we move from space to space, role to role, community to community. Even as The Frye nurtures locals artists, provides spaces and objects for quiet introspection and a shelter for its treasures, it remains porous, drawing viewers in—and pushing them out of their comfort zones.