Share story

Eirik Johnson is making some of Seattle’s most eloquent art these days. “Barrow Cabins” is his fourth solo exhibition at Gail Gibson’s Pioneer Square gallery. It features a series of melancholy double images of hunting cabins that stand on the coast of the Chukchi Sea in the very northernmost part of Alaska — about as far north of Seattle as the Panama Canal is to the south.

The left-hand image of each pair was taken by the light of the midnight sun during the summer of 2010 when Johnson happened upon the cabins while he was working on a quite separate project. Cobbled together by the local Inupiat people from scrap materials salvaged from a decommissioned Navy base near the town of Barrow, the cabins provide rough accommodation during waterfowl hunts in summer and seal hunts in winter.

They make for rather miserable images, though Johnson found them so filled with meaning that he began to think of them as a kind of portrait of their occasional occupants. After contemplating them back in Seattle for several months, he decided to return to make the matching winter images last year.

The pathos of the original pictures is rendered almost unbearable by the addition of later versions taken from the same position. Blasted by frozen snow that adheres to almost every surface, their scavenged materials and crude construction are made to seem even more inadequate, and we witness the extreme climate accelerate the process of their disintegration.

In the most drastic example, “Barrow Cabin 02, Summer 2010 / Winter 2012,” almost the entire cabin has disappeared and all that remain are its corner uprights. In its place — like nature’s cruel joke — stands the plastic children’s playhouse that once sat in its yard.

Like almost everything else on the distant edges of human existence — and like several of Johnson’s past subjects — the Inupiat way of life is changing so fast as to be under threat.

The arrival of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles in Barrow means that the hunting grounds can be reached far more easily, and instead of housing family communities for weeks at a time, the cabins have become casual weekend stopovers.

The standout piece in this show falls somewhat outside of the “Barrow Cabins” series, though it provides its context. “The Arctic Ocean, Summer 2010 / Winter 2012” is presented in a considerably larger version than the cabin pictures.

It also comes with its own soundtrack: during the four-minute-long exposure of the left-hand picture Johnson made an audio recording of the breaking waves that are its subject. This regular rhythmic sound, icy and wet, fills the gallery. It is like the measure of time passing.

Robert Ayers: