When Scott Lawrimore was interviewed for his job as deputy director at the Frye, he was asked what would be his dream exhibition. Now, less than a year later, here is the superb exhibition he proposed, and one of the city’s most venerable art institutions finds itself playing host to one of its most venerable artists.
In an unusual show of gratitude, Buster Simpson has taken an ax to the place.
The ax in question is one that he’s owned since he was a Boy Scout, and he has used it to carve those forward slashes in the show’s title into one of the museum’s walls. Apparently people in the know will recognize them as a hobo sign meaning “the sky’s the limit,” which makes a fitting mantra for the 40-year endeavor that this show records and celebrates.
Simpson first made his home in Seattle in the early 1970s as one of the original Pilchuck Glass School artists. In this boomtown on the edge of the wilderness he found a perfect center of operations, and not incidentally a whole succession of issues to keep him engaged. For he was a man before his time who passionately — and poetically — railed against our careless despoilment of the planet, and pioneered an art ethos in which assumptions about what art could or should be were always far less important than the persuasiveness of his actions.
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He made guardrails for city trees. He shot a movie of crows competing for a perch and left it to its audience to reflect on their absurdity. He became Woodman, a shapeshifting street character who is both the victim of urban waste and a ghostly harbinger of its consequences. He discovered limestone’s capacity to de-acidify water and hurled huge discs of it — he called them “River Rolaids” — into the polluted Hudson River.
He became the scourge of bureaucrats, “going through red tape ’til he was blue in the face” as Lawrimore puts it. He has written poetry on saw blades, slung rocks at the World Trade Center and gold-leafed a fence post. Only last month he came up with an umbrella colored with pH indicator dye so that it gauges the acidity of the rain falling on it. He has been alternative for so long that he has made it his normal.
Though he is almost 70 years old now, Buster Simpson still works as intuitively, as pragmatically, as tenaciously as ever, and with as much inventive and playful wit. He has never been one for formulae or theory or programs, preferring instead the alchemy that occurs when even the most ordinary objects or situations are charged with passionately-held beliefs. This is what an artist does, in Buster Simpson’s philosophy, and that is why, as he puts it, “artists try to get everybody to think like an artist.”
Robert Ayers: firstname.lastname@example.org