Reviews of two exhibitions at Bellevue Arts Museum: a retrospective of works by wood sculptor Michael Cooper (through Oct. 9) and "Midway" by Seattle metal sculptor Cathy McClure (through Jan. 22).
Here are two examples of the variety of people who are drawn to Michael Cooper’s sculptures: woodworkers and woodworking aficionados, who marvel at the truly exquisite craftsmanship of Cooper’s carved, bent and polished wood forms, and hot-rod and DIY vehicle nuts who appreciate the way Cooper fuses metal and wood, plays with form and function and occasionally creates sculptures that actually move via gas engines and pneumatic air systems.
Me? I find Cooper’s work a mixed bag. I also marvel and appreciate, but I quickly lose interest in the heavy-handedness of some of the works. I prefer the twisted abstract forms and possibilities of the peg-legged “Captain’s Chair,” for example, to the obvious messages about self-destruction and violence in “Armed Chair,” a chair whose arms grasp two pistols, which point toward each other.
The large-scale, free-standing portrait or handgun sculptures don’t leave much room for prolonged visual or interpretive contemplation, while a piece like “Gunrunner” — with its slightly hidden gun enmeshed with the mechanics of the wheel axles — offers more ambiguous messages about the dynamics of destruction and production.
And everything, mind you, the gun, the wheels, the coils of the exhaust system, every last nut and bolt, is carved or shaped out of different kinds of wood.
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Guest curator Harold B. Nelson, curator of American decorative arts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., who organized this retrospective, calls “How the West was Won, How the West was Lost” Cooper’s “magnum opus.” The California-based artist has been working on the large piece (check out the base — it’s the metal roof of a van) since 1977, and it is impressive both in technique and content.
Honestly, it initially struck me as slick, crass and overwrought but, in this case, these qualities powerfully support the meaning of the piece, which explores the slick, crass and overwrought policies of the oil industry. When I visited, the piece was experiencing some technical difficulties, but I’ll return to see the pistons pumping and the wheels move back and forth. (It won’t be running continuously, so call ahead if you want to ensure a viewing time.)
Downstairs from Cooper’s big, bright show, you’ll find “Midway,” a darker, smaller exhibition of works by Cathy McClure, a Seattle-based metalworker who also explores issues related to technology and culture. McClure’s futuristic-nostalgic visions are made manifest in creepy-cute plastic and metal robotic toys that line the wall in mute dysfunction or sit idly in their circular tracks. A large video projection demonstrates that many of these little creatures can, in fact, move, as with the metal hippo that wags its plastic tail and opens and closes its little maw, but the actual hippo sculpture stands completely immobile like an abandoned toy or detritus from a robotics lab.
The star of the show is the enthralling two-level metal carousel that spins more and more quickly as melancholic, tinkling circus music plays along. Strobe lights hit the circular rows of metal sculptures — chained elephants and horses on poles — and make the poor creatures seem to rise up and down as if trapped in a cursed zoetrope.
Aptly named “Midway,” the installation and the exhibition as a whole conjure associations with the kind of shadowy, voyeuristic sideshows that invited spectators to witness thrilling abnormalities or magical feats, experiences that dared people to believe it … or not. McClure beautifully fabricates this kind of in-between state; we want to decipher the mechanics of her contraptions even while we long to lose ourselves in the fantasy.