Frye Art Museum Goes Rogue

A floating sound sculpture by Robb Kunz welcomes visitors to the Frye’s exhibit, Mw [Moment Magnitude]
A floating sound sculpture by Robb Kunz welcomes visitors to the Frye’s exhibit, Mw [Moment Magnitude]
An alien craft has landed in the serene reflecting pool at the Frye Art Museum. Resembling a miniature moon lander, the R2-D2-size sound sculpture, by Seattle artist Robb Kunz, floats on the surface like a water bug, emanating music by local composer Jherek Bischoff. Called “Andromeda Strained,” the piece is Kunz’s “sculptural remix” of Bischoff’s orchestral-pop composition “Casiopea.” It also serves as a harbinger of what you’ll find inside the Frye’s new exhibit: exploration, border crossing and a glimpse of the future.

The name of the show, Mw [Moment Magnitude], refers to the seismic system of measurement that calculates earthquakes in terms of energy released. It reflects a curatorial intent to reveal how in the 21st century, not only are artists shaking things up, the role of the art gallery is experiencing a tectonic shift. Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the Frye’s director, says that when it comes to the presentation of art, “The 20th-century models we’ve been working with are exhausted.” She believes the tradition of artists working in strictly defined disciplines (painting, music, dance) relegated to distinctly defined venues (gallery, concert hall, proscenium stage) is a thing of the past. Similarly, the role of curator is shifting—from one person who instructs in the “correct” way to view art to someone who facilitates many points of view, even those of non-experts. (Earlier this year, Birnie Danzker invited Frieda Sondland—a 90-year-old woman with no arts background who has visited the Frye every day for the last 10 years—to curate a show.)

The 20th-century models we’ve been working with are exhausted.

For Mw, the director risked a “too many cooks” scenario by inviting four people involved in avant-garde Seattle arts to join her in a “curatorial collective” to select works that showcase “exceptional artistic practice in Seattle.” Independent curator Yoko Ott, composer Joshua Kohl, performance artist Ryan Mitchell and author/performer Doug Nufer had extensive discussions with Birnie Danzker surrounding the questions “What does it mean to make museum exhibits in the 21st century?” and “How can you push the limits of what a museum does?”

The group emphasized that we live in what Ott calls a “post-medium” era, in which sculptors are also videographers, musicians are also dancers. “Given that artists are already working this way, how can a museum be contemporary if we’re operating as if it’s the ’60s?” Ott says. The collective made it part of its mission to “break down the boundaries of traditional disciplines.”

This may seem radical for a museum best known for its founding collection of 19th-century German portraits and landscapes displayed in ornate gilt frames. But under Birnie Danzker’s leadership (along with former curator Robin Held), the Frye has expanded its offerings in recent years to incorporate just this sort of contemporary philosophy. In 2010, the Frye presented a collection of masks and props employed by local performance art group Implied Violence (which Mitchell directs). The exhibit intersected with a live event in which performers spent more than four grueling hours moving slowly through the museum’s cold reflecting pool in the rain. In 2011, the Frye gave the Degenerate Art Ensemble (which Kohl directs) similar treatment, showcasing the group’s invented musical instruments, costumes and kinetic sculptures, and presenting a theatrical performance in which musicians and dancers began at the Frye and traveled out to the city.

“We’re moving away from the notion of a fixed product from beginning to end, where the art is the same at the end of a show as it was in the beginning,” Birnie Danzker says. Her preference is for something that feels more dynamic and alive, a “living exhibition” that evolves over its duration. For example, video/performance artist Wynne Greenwood, one of the 23 artists featured in Mw, will craft and shoot one of her trademark low-fi videos entirely within the exhibit and add it to the two of hers already looping on a gallery wall. On December 8, collaborative artists/set designers Lilienthal/Zamora will interrupt the exhibition already in progress by building a massive light sculpture in one of the rooms.

One of the exhibit goals is to open viewers’ eyes to the process of making art—to the fact of its messiness (see: the thrillingly jumbled contents of writer Rebecca Brown’s home office, relocated and displayed diorama style), and the effect that random events can have on the outcome of the work. Early in November, dance collective/video installation duo Zoe/Juniper held public rehearsals of a work in progress amid visitors milling around the exhibit. Composer Bischoff is bringing in an entire orchestra to rehearse a new work (11/29–11/30), and several jazz-influenced musicians will perform brand-new pieces in the galleries, including Eyvind Kang (12/08),Samantha Boshnack (12/13) and Evan Flory-Barnes (1/10/2013). The People’s Grand Opera contemporary chorus will hold rehearsals for several days in January. “The artists have no control over their environment. People will be walking in and out a lot—there is no traditional boundary between performer and audience,” Birnie Danzker says. “And that will change the nature of the product itself.” Embracing unknown outcomes, she underlines, is the cutting-edge, 21st-century approach to art presentation.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the point than Matt Browning’s featured paintings, made from tree sap layered thickly on wood panels, which will never fully dry. The shifting resin causes the works to fracture constantly; the sap fills the cracks in, then it fractures again elsewhere, always shifting, like the plates of the earth.


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