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Wright Dozen

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Yesterday, we went down to the Wright Exhibition Space* to see their latest show, a rose is a rose is a rose, curated by the Seattle Art Museum‘s curator for modern and contemporary art, Catharina Manchanda. I wrote about Manchanda earlier this month, after we had the good fortune to tour the Elles: Pompidou exhibition at SAM with her as our guide. This time, though not present, she was our guide once again, having been invited by Virginia Wright to mount a show with whatever works she liked from the Wright collection. Manchanda chose just a dozen, the dozen you see above.

*I have explained in previous posts on the Wright Exhibition Space—for instance, this one—that it “is a small gallery that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend going, whatever the show, because the art is superb, the mix of art is interesting, you often have the space to yourself or nearly to yourself, there’s an informative little printed guide, and there’s often a docent to introduce you to the show and chat with. The gallery is open Thursdays and Saturday, with free admission.”

The gallery is a single large space, as its name suggests, but divided into one larger central segment and two smaller segments by a pair of walls. Moments after descending the steps into the central segment, we were met by Sylvia, the docent, who had just ushered another visitor out. She would spend the next 45 minutes walking us through the exhibition. Pointing out how few works were presented, she offered this as an opportunity to focus on the architecture of the building, a former flower wholesale seller. She then explained how Virginia Wright had given Manchanda carte blanche to select whatever works she pleased, and how surprising it was that Manchanda chose just the dozen. As we visited each work, Sylvia discussed with us not just each in isolation, but also how they related to each other and what Manchanda had in mind.

Besides Sylvia, we were armed with a pamphlet that had the image above on the back and Manchanda’s own text inside. There were no signs on the walls identifying or giving background on the works. The pamphlet served that purpose.

We began, as the pamphlet does, with Warhol, which was hung in the segmented room to the left, on the far wall, not visible from the entry. We never did read the pamphlet as we walked, relying on Sylvia instead. Had we taken a look, we would have learned this:

Like canonical and apocryphal versions of the Bible, art history has its official and its less official interpretations. Take Andy Warhol for example. Although heavily researched, a large part of art historical writing focuses on his early pop icons: the Campbell soup cans, Coke bottles, movie stars and other items of mass production and consumption. As a result, the critique of abstract expressionist painting, the clash of high and low, the readymade and reproduction, are some of the perennial cornerstones of Warhol interpretation. Sex appeal and Warhol’s fascination with the aura of glamour and death, which also loom large, are most often discussed in view of his celebrity portraits. But these themes also extend to a person’s production of an aura in front of the film or video camera and Warhol’s often cruel fascination with the psychological unraveling of his subjects. His enormous compendium of films and videos is not nearly as well-known as his silkscreens, in part because some of the subject matter is of the X-rated kind, or so long that it tries the patience of his most ardent admirers.

Late in his career, Warhol produced a series of Rorschach paintings, named after the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, who invented an ink blot test–a psychological projective test of personality, based on responses to 10 abstract designs. The Rorschach is a mirror image simply achieved by putting wet blots of paint on one half of a paper and folding it over, resulting in an abstract design when reopened. The test was conceived to assess a person’s emotional and intellectual functioning and integration and it is telling that Warhol, who never supplied interpretations of his works, puts the viewer again in the position of finding his or her own. One way to look at the Rorschach paintings is in relation to the history of abstraction, as yet another gesture of opposing immediacy and grand inspiration. But what of the psychological suggestiveness and how the Rorschach speaks of the body?

Manchanda next explains what she had in mind in putting the show together.

In the famous line from Gertrude Stein’s poem, the meaning of the thing, that romantic rose, starts to change through the triple repetition. A rose is a rose is a tautology that flattens and empties it of romantic association, but the third time around, the word acquires new meaning. And every time you reread the line, you might place the emphasis differently and think in new ways about its meaning. Similarly, this selection from the Wright collection is brought together with the intention of a deeper second and third look. It is, admittedly, a highly subjective grouping that plays on the synergy between artworks and how that relationship between objects changes the way we perceive them individually and as a group. All of the works that are brought together here play with more subliminal messages and reference or allude in one way or another to the human body, or contain an aspect of yearning. While each object stands in relationship to the others in the gallery, each piece is also part of a continuum and echoes with other works made by the same artist, resulting in a web of cross-references.

From Warhol, we turned right and looked at the Mapplethorpe plate. The Warhol, about 13 feet tall, filled its wall. The Mapplethorpe, which is indeed just a plate, sat sparely toward the right side of its wall. Manchanda again:

On its own, Mapplethorpe’s orchid, which here appears on a plate, is just a pretty flower, but if you know how Mapplethorpe moves back and forth between beautiful flowers and depictions of sensuous bodies, the orchid starts conjuring associations with more intimate parts of the body. Adjacent to Andy Warhol’s Rorschach, the shared sexual orientation of both men, not to mention the psychologically charged associations of Warhol’s image, adds another dimension.

The third piece in the left segment of the gallery is Sugimoto’s photograph. “The portrait of Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry the VIII is a photograph of a wax figure, which was modeled after a painting. In its sumptuous details, the photograph might read as a different articulation of desire.”

Back in the central space, we zig-zagged among the six pieces, visiting in order the urinal and skates of Gober, Fritsch’s vases, Lichtenstein’s still life, Hawkin’s pilgrim, and Oldenburg’s wingnut. The pilgrim stands about 7 feet high, the drippings consisting of white athletic socks connected together. The wick too is a sock, a purple one. Nothing about the photo gives any sense of what the piece is like, in texture, scale, or color. Of course, this is true of all the works, but perhaps especially of this one. Manchanda comments only on the urinal.

The works in the central gallery speak more obliquely about the body and create a web of associations. The most overt bodily form is Robert Gober’s Urinal, which is not only heavily encoded with references to Marcel Duchamp’s scandalous bathroom fixture, Fountain of 1917. But unlike Duchamp’s famous readymade, Gober’s object is handmade and in its display there is an intimacy in the way it addresses itself to the viewer. The textured surface of the Urinal brings memories of his sculpted body parts protruding from a wall that extends to other works in the room.

I was fond of the Fritsch kitsch-like vases, which I would have happily taken home. (At least they would fit in the house comfortably.) Well, the Lichtenstein would fit too. Sylvia made it a point to contrast the two, with their similar blue shade and disparate art-market value.

The segmented space to the right had just two works, Wesselmann’s nude and Salle’s four-part canvas. We spent quite a bit of time discussing these with Sylvia.

The final gallery, with paintings by Tom Wesselmann and David Salle grandly stage the female figure. Wesselmann’s painting from the Pop era shows the reclining nude as surface, devoid of emotion or erotic appeal, while Salle’s dramatic presentation of the dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage, crowned by a suggestive braid of bread and a small image with a group of onlookers reasserts sensuality.

That braid of bread looked like a perfectly edible challah. The portion of the Wesselmann nude depicted above is the smallest of fragments, giving no sense of the painting as a whole. All the more reason why, if you’re in the neighborhood, you really should drop in and see the show.

One work remained, the Jasper Johns, a small work back in the hallway, positioned so you look right at it as you leave the gallery space. “As you exit, Jasper Johns’ thermometer takes the temperature.”

The hallway connects the small entry area of the building to the right with the room to the left that was Bagley Wright’s office, the Johns hanging just by the office doorway. (Wright died two summers ago.) A rope hangs in the doorway, keeping the public out. After we looked at the Johns painting, Sylvia asked if we had seen the office before. No, other than peering in from outside. She removed the rope, brought us in, and continued the tour by telling us about the works of art on the walls, a happy bonus.

It was a splendid outing. The Wright Exhibition Space is a gem, its shows not to be missed. Thanks to Virginia Wright for her ongoing generosity in opening up her collection to the public.

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Categories: Art, Museums
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