Inhabiting space two ways: boldly… and hardly at all

The Seattle Times, November 9, 2007

By Sheila Farr
Seattle Times art critic

Link to Article

You’ll step into a dark gallery and at first be left wondering what’s going on. Then, like a drumroll, a rumble of thunder starts up (presumably triggered by a motion sensor), and the light and sound show begins. At first, the patter is like the clacking of bamboo as a few pinpoint lights begin gently strobing above you (with soft blotches of light echoing on the floor). That all accelerates into an immersion of pattering and flickering light, like a quick, out-of-the-blue rain shower, gradually dissipating into silence. You can sit out “Rain Shower” from a bench in the bus stop-like enclosure at the front of the gallery, or kick through the darkness with Gene Kelly abandon.

After you walk out of the main installation, the next thing you encounter is an empty gallery. Again, that sinking feeling. What am I missing? When I asked gallery owner Scott Lawrimore, he explained that you have to enter the gallery to find out. “And you have to believe,” he joked. Sort of.

Again, a motion sensor activates the piece, titled “Frequency Map,” which is strictly sound — sort of knocking noises, from what I could tell. But because other installations outside that room were going simultaneously, with piano music and singing, sounds mingled, and it was hard to tell what was what.

Lee, an MFA graduate from the University of Washington, makes art that presumes a lot from its audience. It doesn’t reach out to help you. Her imagery is so subtle and inward-looking, you may not see it at all without some direction. Fortunately for me, Lee was at the gallery when I visited, and she pointed out to me what she was aiming at with “Wachet Auf Ruft Uns Die Stimme,” an ephemeral light projection through water. The sound portion of the piece is a recording of Lee playing the Bach piano score of the same title. (Lee clearly expects as much from herself as her audience: She also holds a B.S. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale and a masters in education at Columbia University.)

A printed guide provides titles, prices and clues to each piece. But because the galleries have to be kept darkened for the light and video installations, it’s tough to read. Luckily, at least one piece needs no explanation: “Conjugal” projects video onto a screen of cotton batting. It looks like clouds breathing — an indelible image.

Danger, beauty

Across town at Suyama Space, Mike Rathbun’s big, substantial, in-your-face installation is the polar opposite of Lee’s. The soaring, hard-to-fill gallery finally meets its match with Rathbun, who dominates the space with a vertiginous dreamscape, a plane crash among scary spiked vines on a rolling field — all obsessively constructed of wood. Even the bare metal ductwork and lighting tracks high in the room get eaten up in Rathbun’s composition. It’s as if the petrified plane crash took place long ago in some alternate universe and the rest of the building simply wrapped around it.

Originally from the Midwest, Rathbun now lives in Portland and teaches at Lewis & Clark College. “I used to have a recurring dream,” he writes about the exhibition, titled by the coordinates “N47º 36.878′ W122º 20.788.’ ” “It went like this: I did something that wrecked the entire world and everyone knew I did it.”

In this artwork, he reaches out to his audience and makes the sensation of that dream utterly palpable. It feels familiar: heavy, dangerous and at the same time beautiful to look at. I would have been satisfied just admiring the elevated expanse of wavy wooden ground the spiky jungle crash sits on. What craftsmanship.

Sheila Farr: [email protected]
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company