Art Through Their Eyes

There’s no such thing as spending too much time in a museum. But as much time as you spend walking between artworks, pausing to absorb the work or read the accompanying text, you’ll never see a museum’s art quite the way those who regularly work around it do. In this spirit, I ventured to Frye Art Museum to speak with one of the museum’s security officers to walk the museum with them and see what the museum looks like through their eyes.

Stephen Kelley is one of the Frye’s lead security officers, charged with tasks like opening and closing the museum, interfacing with visitors and, of course, making sure you don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to. One of the hardest parts of the job, he says, is deciding what exactly is “too close” to an artwork and trying to judge whether or not someone venturing closer and closer to a work is actually going to touch something.

“There’s a lot of reading people involved in the job,” Kelley says.

The 32-year-old Kelley studied illustration and continues to make his own art outside of his work at the museum — a position that he says allows him to draw inspiration from the artwork he’s surrounded by on a daily basis. Kelley joined the Frye after attending a 2018 conversation there between Jim Woodring and Simon Hanselmann, two of his favorite cartoonists. He had recently moved to Seattle at the time and saw the Frye was hiring security guards, resulting in this, his first time working at a museum.

We start our walk toward the entrance of the Frye with “Jeremy Shaw: Liminals,” an exhibition (running through Oct. 9) that features prismatic lens-refracted photographs. In other words, the exhibition features photographs where, instead of a pane glass protecting it, as you might have over your own framed photos, Shaw has covered the photos with a prism. The photos sit in a sort of shadow box with the glass covering looking almost as if it has been pressed outward and fractured.

The particular work Kelley draws attention to is “Towards Universal Pattern Recognition (Brain Club. Wardour St. 17/2/92).” In the photo are two people wearing what looks like a cross between some sort of early virtual-reality goggles and a sleep mask wired into devices on the table next to them. A caption under the photo reads, “Brain machine in operation at the Seed Club,” and in the top right corner is a label that says, “Brain Club.”

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“It tells such a great story with not a lot that’s evident right away,” Kelley says. “What is the Brain Club? What are they doing? It just pulls me in, and then the prism distorts that and takes you further away from it. From certain angles, you can see the full image as it is. It’s like a little glimpse into what’s happening, but you never can get the full part unless you’re at the right angle.”

This is part of a series. So I ask Kelley if there’s something in particular about this one that stands out from the other three on the same wall.

“I’ve always been a big fan of movies like ‘Lawnmower Man’ or ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man,’ where technology gets integrated with biological elements,” Kelley explains. “That’s what I feel like is happening in this, and from what I’ve read on the wall text, Jeremy Shaw likes to incorporate a lot of that into his work. I find that really interesting.”

As we walk further into the museum, we come to “Romare Bearden: Abstraction,” the first in-depth examination of the artist’s work with abstraction, shown in context with Bearden’s more widely known collages (through Sept. 18). Here, Kelley pauses to point out two untitled mixed-media works from Bearden, including one that features just enough bits of newspaper that it feels like you could just move some of the other paper from the collage out of the way to reveal a full, intact print ad.

“There’s just something about them that’s so different from the rest of them in this room from this period of Bearden’s work,” says Kelley. “They’re much more figurative. These are actually like full figures in motion interacting with each other. It’s more of a graphic cartoony quality as well. And I like his use of the newspaper articles, like how much of the text is still preserved.”

As our conversation winds down, I ask Kelley for his favorite place in the museum. It’s a tough ask, especially considering the fact that the walls literally move around when new exhibitions are installed.

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“It’s an ever-changing labyrinth here,” jokes Kelley. “I think there’s one last one I want to talk about in our permanent collection that I’ve found really interesting.”

He points to an item in a glass case toward the center of the gallery containing items from the Frye Art Museum’s archives. In the early 20th century, Charles and Emma Frye, who gifted the Frye Art Museum’s founding collection of European art, were owners of the local meatpacking plant Frye & Co. Displayed in the museum’s glass case is a piece of its history: a “Frye’s BAR-F Brand Beef” product label, dated 1910-1950.

“This isn’t so much artwork as it is Frye history that I thought was really weird,” Kelley says. “They’ve got the label for one of their cans of beef. BAR-F Beef. And I think it’s interesting that it’s barf. Another guard and I actually went back and tried to look up the history of the word barf, and this predates it.”

They seem to be right. While the exact origin is unknown, multiple dictionaries and etymology resources point to the slang term for vomiting dating back to 1960, with the earliest dating it in 1956.

“That’s what you can find out when you’re staring at this stuff all day,” Kelley says. “You get so many questions about the artwork, you’ve got to look them up.”