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Collecting and Art

Folding chairs, Bill and Ruth True Collection

[Ken Lambert, The Seattle Times]

Some people collect art. Lots of people collect stuff. What’s the difference? Might all of us be art collectors? These questions underlie Collecting: Art is a Slippery Slope, the current exhibition at the Wright Exhibition Space. I’ve written three times before (most recently last June) about exhibitions at the Wright, a small gallery not far from the Space Needle that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection. (Together, the Wrights built the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest.) The gallery is open on Thursdays and Saturdays only, with free admission. Collecting: Art is a Slippery Slope is curated by the Wrights’ daughter Merrill, and we visited yesterday.

The weekly Seattle paper The Stranger offers the following handy summary of the show (see also Michael Upchurch’s review in the Seattle Times):

Collecting: Art Is a Slippery Slope is a spectacularly bric-a-bracky exhibition organized by daughter of Seattle’s leading collectors of modern art, Merrill Wright. She invited 24 of her friends to share what they collect and each collector (including: Art dealer James Harris and partner Carlos Garcia, and Dina Martina, among others) was given an eight-foot-long shelf in the airy galleries. The range of objects is mind-blowing, from hair wreaths to folding chairs to chain-saw carvings to magician’s stands to NASCAR memorabilia.

On entering the gallery, one picks up a xeroxed compendium of descriptions of the collections, each written by the collector him/herself or a third party. Merrill Wright uses her blurb to discuss the impetus for the exhibition:

Growing up, people would come into our house and we would often hear some variation on, “You call that art?” That has become one of my favorite questions. First of all, it is rude and rudeness is fascinating. Secondly, it begs further questions, “What is the fine line that defines art?” And, “Who’s making the call?” Some art, like Allan McCollum’s, can stray into flirting with commodity. My early Warhol is actually an advertisement for men’s clothing while my table is really a piece of Franz West’s floor. Most of my art can slide both ways — as art or thing. And sometimes my things can become art. Like a 1965 diorama of the Kennedy assassination that is absolutely transcendent. Or a 1790s ceramic fish tray depicting the French Royal family incognito. Collecting means you can define for yourself what is art. All collections are personal in different ways.

Space Needles, Merrill Wright Collection

[Ken Lambert, The Seattle Times]

Bill and Ruth True, like the Wrights, collect contemporary art and have set up a space, Western Bridge, a renovated warehouse in Seattle’s industrial district, to show art drawn from their collection. We’ve had the pleasure of spending an evening at their home and seeing the art on display there. I was therefore particularly eager to see their contribution to Collecting: Art Is a Slippery Slope. The guide’s blurb about it, written by Eric Fredericksen, explains that

for Slippery Slope, Bill and Ruth thought to explore an interest they shared in a seemingly simple thing, the folding chair. As inveterate entertainers, hosts and event organizers, they appreciated the flexibility of this object, a great accommodation to have when you set out to host a small dinner and end up welcoming dozens of guests. They were also drawn to the surprising variety of design approaches to the task of making a chair fold flat. The mundane folding chair is a surprisingly interesting intersection of craft and art, aesthetics and engineering. Presented on the floor, the wall, and the shelf, the chairs can be seen as reliefs, sculptures.

Gail enjoyed this particular collection less than I did. I found it revelatory, for it awakened me to the realization that one can collect without investing much money. What must be invested is time: time to develop an overarching vision, to keep that vision in mind in one’s daily wanderings, to be on the lookout for objects that fill gaps or broaden the vision, and ultimately to curate the collection.

I now know that I’ve been collecting art all my life. If only I hadn’t deaccessioned my childhood collection of milk bottle caps.

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Categories: Art
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