The installations that Beth Sellars curates at Suyama Space consistently rate among the most stimulating art experiences to be had anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. What is more, the current exhibit, “Drawn from the Olympics” by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen, is one of the best things to have been made there in some time.
Kavanaugh and Nguyen have shown individually at Suyama Space, and they also have been regular collaborators since 2005. They talk about their collaborations as allowing them to “continually question the foundations of their individual experiences,” which clearly takes a good deal of artistic courage.
For this project they traveled out to the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula, where they spent two days and a night. But they did this separately. It was only when they brought their individual sensations back to Second Avenue that they began the process of assertion, agreement and amalgamation that has resulted in their remarkable installation.
“Drawn from the Olympics” is made from enormous quantities of kraft paper, and Kavanaugh and Nguyen prove themselves virtuosi of paper crumpling. But they are also masters of ambiguity. Though notionally black, the paper’s dull sheen reflects light in an infinite range of grays. This is very like the graphite surface of a heavily applied pencil drawing, and like the best sort of drawing, this installation evokes a vast range of meanings. Some of these relate more or less directly to the appearances of the rain forest: tree trunks, roots, rocks, cascades and rapids — all “abstractly embodied,” as the artists put it.
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But this is just an interpretive beginning, for there are also echoes of Leonardo’s water studies here, and suggestions of ships’ hawsers, bloody entrails and faces screwed up in anguish or glee. There are reminders of elaborate knots and weather maps. There are even hints of landscape blasted by trench warfare, and Captain Gulliver’s hair as it might have appeared to the Lilliputians.
A half-hidden pathway allows you right into the physical center of the piece, and there is something like euphoria to be had in the midst of so much meaning. But there is also an elation to be enjoyed in the energy that the piece carries as it sweeps from one end of the space to the other.
One of the expectations we might bring to contemporary art is that it should surprise us, and in this regard “Drawn from the Olympics” does not disappoint. A work made from paper that can do so many different things at the same time? It only seems a shame it has to be temporary.
Robert Ayers: firstname.lastname@example.org