Seattle makes me… first friday

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Seattle Art Gallery exhibiting Kehinde Wiley’s Anthony of Padua painted in 2013 within their Gallery of European Art – “not a universally popular decision”

As someone brought up Catholic First Fridays have a very specific memory – walking from school to Church in the hope that, with the achievement of  9 consecutive months of devotions, the grace of final repentance would be secured and there was no fear of dying without God’s blessing. Strangely though I have no idea if I ever achieved this, it seems unlikely as with school holidays there was no way that we would make all 9 in one go – and I don’t think my Mum ever ensured that the missing Fridays were dutifully covered. However in Seattle First Fridays can be associated in a different way altogether. Seattle Art Museum (SAM) hold their monthly lecture series on that very sequence. It runs from October to June, so there is just chance to make the glory of 9 successive visits, but I am starting in January – so doomed again.

Traveling in to SAM I realised that it is along time since I attended a gallery talk that wasn’t in some way related to work. I guess I’m lucky that my work includes things that I now find myself doing without any compulsion – for enjoyment even. I can’t quite take off that ‘work hat’ though, and found myself estimating the audience (around 75 people) and the assessing the demographic (lets just say I was among the youngest – although there was at least one child, and it was a very white audience). A good number, and probably rather representative of SAM members (for whom the lectures are free) available on a friday late morning. I have no idea how conservative the artistic taste was of those attending – one would hope that living in a city that was just getting going at the beginning of the 20th Century would temper this but I’m already seeing signs that this may not be the case. Dr Chiyo Ishikawa, SAMs Deputy Director of Art, certainly emphasised the need to make relationships across time, incorporating the view of contemporary artists and understanding how those artists knowledge of the history of art influenced and informed their work.

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Sasha and Malia Obama exploring the ‘selfie’

Dr Ishikawa’s talk was on the permanent collection and she had selected portraiture as the theme to consider. Strangely the marketing referred to SAMs European collection of 14th – 19th Century work being at the heart of the talk – in reality it was far more dynamic than that suggests and was centred around the work of contemporary artists, looking back at the more historic collection to draw out relationships and themes reflected in this more recent work. I enjoyed her introduction encouraging us to think about the ‘selfie’ – that 2013 word of the year – and how that phenomena illuminates our thinking about artist created portraits. The immediacy and disposability of the selfie, against work made for lasting – long considered and historically informed. But also the selfie and its place within a culture of self documentary, as a culmination perhaps of the Warhol ‘famous for 15 minutes’ prediction. Projecting images by Warhol reminded us that whilst there may be an app to transform our mobile phone shots into a Warhol pastiche – the artists work still sits head and shoulders (excuse the portrait pun!) above this.

imageIt was an excellent talk, both enjoyable and informative. Personal highlights were being introduced to the work of Robert Arnison, a San Francisco based artist who died in 1992 and Kehinde Wiley, an East Coast artist born in 1977. Also my attention being brought to the sculpture of the Head of an African Slave in the Roman gallery and a painting of an unknown man painted in the 19th century – the artist details of which I can’t now recall. SAM has recently acquired a piece by Kehinde Wiley ‘Anthony of Padua’ and despite its contemporary provenance it is hanging in a gallery of historic European paintings. Wiley invites young men into his studio where they select from poses portrayed in historical works of art. Exploring this contemporarily dressed man and the the power and status given by these postures reveals something about both times and places. I commend the gallery on its citing of the work – although was disappointed to hear that it hasn’t been “universally popular” and will soon move to another area of the museum.

Thebrownsister-620x465The most touching moment of the session was a really loud audience ‘ahhh’ at the latest photograph in a series by Nicholas NixonThe Brown Sisters.’ Nixon has been chronicling this group of women (his wife and her three sisters) since 1975, each summer taking an image. This later one in the series showed a beautiful group of older women, full of love and tenderness. It clearly reached the heart of many in the audience – a reminder of the importance of the inclusion of work reflecting older women’s experiences in our public art collections. The photographs currently within SAMs collection document the early part of the series, but this more recent image would surely be appreciated by the local audience.

My one frustration was not being clearly directed to the work discussed that was currently on show. The lecture handout could easily have included this, or a final slide summarised it. It wasn’t helped that Dr Ishikawa’s naming of the galleries did not follow that in SAM’s map or signposting. Whilst those more familiar with the building and its collection may have navigated this easily, for someone new it was annoying. I know it is always lovely to come across a piece unexpectedly and reflect back on talks such as this, but I immediately set out to find a number of the pieces discussed and had to give up on a couple.

Whilst 2014 won’t see me reach the 9 consecutive Fridays, I hope to attend many of the remaining lectures in the series. It was a joy to have free access to such a talk that was so well done, in content, pacing and ambition – and I loved listening to someone with such a depth of knowledge of their material.

The next talk is on 7 February and will focus on LaToya Ruby Frazier: Born by a river.

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