Two new exhibits at Seattle's Frye Art Museum, "Implied Violence: Yes and More and Yes and Yes and Why" and "Séance: Albert von Keller and the Occult," probe extremes of experience.
It’s not every day you see an archer shooting arrows at a wax throne in the Frye Art Museum reflecting pool, while a dozen or so dancers make the pool their stage for five hours straight.
That was the scene Saturday, when Seattle-based performance troupe Implied Violence (known as “IV”) mounted “The Dorothy K: For Better, For Worse, Forever” to kick off the opening of an exhibit, “Implied Violence: Yes and More and Yes and Yes and Why.”
The show, curated by Frye deputy director Robin Held with IV director/co-founder Ryan Mitchell, marks a new commitment on the part of the museum to living performers whose projects create unusual artifacts.
In the case of Implied Violence, the artifacts include elaborate masks, kinetic sculptures and ether machines, along with artfully staged photographs by Seattle’s Steven Miller and the usual video-clip archive one might expect from a performing troupe.
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A museum display can’t match the all-but-intravenous impact of IV in the flesh. But it does hint at the troupe’s feverish imaginative world. Implied Violence aims for ecstatic states induced by extreme experience: body blows, ether blackouts, sleep deprivation, blood deprivation (courtesy of leeches) and painfully tight physical constraints (courtesy of flesh-digging corsets). Not to mention pure exhaustion from, say, hopping in place for epic lengths of time, as Pol Rosenthal valiantly did Saturday.
The two-hour video compilation in the show isn’t for the squeamish and would likely be rated NC-17 if shown in a movie theater. But the artifacts can be genuinely sublime.
That wax throne Aaron Ross shot scores of arrows into Saturday afternoon, for instance, is a beauty. It instantly joined the exhibit once the performance was over.
“The Dorothy K: Bow Dress” at the Frye’s entrance is a ravishing silk, satin and lace sculpture, worn by Rachael Ferguson in a European production of “The Dorothy K.” Seemingly voluminous, it’s designed around the ankles to restrict leg movement so the performer can take only tiny steps.
What’s it all about? And who is “Dorothy K”?
That may not matter. As IV puts it on www.impliedviolence.com, “We don’t care to be understood, to understand is to lie.”
The Frye is pairing the IV exhibit with a show that at first seems an unlikely match: a retrospective of work by a Swiss-born, Munich-based painter, “Séance: Albert von Keller and the Occult.”
But there’s a method to the museum curators’ madness.
Keller (1844-1920), a member of the Munich Secession, repeatedly addressed “shifting, uncertain states of being and becoming” in his paintings, as Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and her co-curator, Gian Casper Bott, explain in their catalog. A look at his most powerful works suggests that the agitated or entranced states of mind he depicts are not so far removed from the excesses of Implied Violence. Take “Stigmatization (Study),” (circa 1905). At the left, a theatrically lit female figure holds up her hands on which blood may be about to appear. (Keller frequently draws on religious imagery in his work.) To her right are her witnesses, scarcely recognizable as human beings. Instead, their dark-blurred figures are huddled against blasts of white paint that give the whole scene an exhilarating rightward motion.
Equally odd is “Gisela von Wehner with Daughter Ilka” (circa 1906). Here, one of Keller’s favorite models evokes a sensually hellish mood, with child in tow. The two seem to float in a smoky red limbo, the mother issuing a languid sexual invitation, while her clinging daughter guards pugnaciously against anyone disrupting their filial bond. It’s an extraordinarily unsettled and unsettling painting.
American curator Charles Kurtz, writing in 1906, noted that Keller’s supposedly preliminary sketches for planned oil paintings often had more vitality than his end products. Kurtz was right. The very polish of the “finished” paintings sometimes pushes them into kitsch territory, while the sketches, done with quick, crazed brush-stroke energy, careen toward the abstract in a manner similar to J.M.W. Turner’s later work.
“Séance,” taken on its own, would fall comfortably within the Frye’s parameters, given the strong presence of German art in its permanent collection. But this inspired pairing of shows is something else again.
It’s the new Frye — and it may well freak you out.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org