Contributed by Erin Langner / In the center of the 2018 Seattle Art Fair, Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar’s white neon script, hovering in Galerie Lelong’s booth, reads “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.” Jaar has appropriated these words, penned by poet W.H. Auden, many times before. But, as the fourth year of Seattle’s international fair opened on August 2, their plea resonated anew. This weekend’s newspaper headlines chronicle a bleak outlook, from increasing concerns for the freedom of the press, to the dismal outlook for higher education and the missed opportunity to address climate change. The need to look at reality dead-on, harrowing though it may be, permeated the paintings on view at the fair. Figurative work dominated, speaking with directness and clarity to this urgent moment in our history.
As I approached Portland-based artist Stephen Hayes’s paintings of open fields and empty roads at Elizabeth Leach’s booth, I first mistook them for traditional landscapes, but a sense of unease quickly unfolded. Sprawling skies weigh upon the low horizon lines while scrappy trees cast heavy shadows from an undetectable sun. The red brushstrokes seeping quietly between leaves and fence posts felt particularly strange until I read the works’ titles: St. Paul, Newton, Littleton. Instantly bringing all of the details into focus, the paintings became a sullen depiction of the way American mass shootings have left physical and emotional scars on our communities.
At the G. Gibson Gallery booth, Susanna Bluhm’s large-scale landscape painting Lake Martin, Louisiana (Ahab) was more outspoken in its dark overtones. Following the 2016 presidential election, Bluhm began a project in which she visits the states whose electoral colleges voted for Donald Trump in an effort to challenge her “feelings of incredulity and animosity.” The resulting paintings comprise her series “Red Country.” Included in her third set of work in the series, Lake Martin, Louisiana’s balmy swamp feels unnaturally vibrant and thick against the rows of skeleton-like black trees floating on its surface. The absence of life is felt through the scene’s stillness, while the warm sunset buried in the background hints at a beauty that silently fades.
A number of poignant works also integrated painting with other media. Evan La Londe’s deceivingly minimal Sundials at Melanie Flood Projects required a complex series of actions that included digital sensors, painting and photography. The goal of the Portland artist’s extensive process was simply to capture the sun’s movement, a contradiction that speaks to the lengths now demanded to hold on to our natural world.
Seattle Art Fair and Adams and Ollman presented Xylophone, a watercolor-based animation by Philadelphia artist Jennifer Levonian. The medium highlights the surreal absurdities encountered by its main character, a single mother raising her children in a gentrifying neighborhood. A like-minded satirical subject covers the walls of SEASON‘s vibrant booth. Seattle artist Dawn Cerny’s THERE IS NO RHYME, THERE IS NO NURSERY, THERE IS NO MOON combines gouache with silkscreen to create a repeated, wallpaper pattern of paths, trees, and brick walls whose light tone belies the frustration embedded in its seemingly endless repetition.
In White Strings, one of the Fair’s most memorable gestures, Indianapolis-based artist Samuel Levi Jones created a canvas made from deconstructed Indiana law books. Covered by a patchwork of black fabric whose fraying, white seams establish its painterly surface, the piece speaks to the dissection of institutional power systems in both art and the world at large. Also shown in Galerie Lelong, Jones’s work reminded me that painting’s power lies in its absence as much as its presence, especially during these turbulent times.
A selection of other strong paintings from the Seattle Art Fair follows.
Seattle Art Fair at CenturyLink Field Event Center, Seattle, WA. Through August 5.
About the author: An art worker based in Seattle, Erin Langner works at the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities and has held previous positions at the Seattle Art Museum and Henry Art Gallery. She has written for ARTnews, Hyperallergic, The Stranger, and the New American Paintings blog and is at work on her first collection of essays.