Tightly focused show includes heavy hitters such as Laurie Anderson, Chuck Close and Gary Hill.
For more than three decades, the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA), despite its name, has functioned without a permanent, physical center. Moving from venue to venue, its focus has always been on showcasing art, and not so much on establishing itself as a fixed, predictable institution.
In the catalog accompanying its first exhibition 35 years ago, organizers explained that developing administrative staff and securing a permanent exhibition space “were given second priority by the founding group, in favor of launching a program first.” And they decided early on not to collect work, “choosing instead to stimulate and respond to new activity.”
Since then, CoCA has stimulated a lot of new activity, presenting more than 200 major exhibitions, hundreds of other events and the work of almost 3,000 artists in various places across town.
11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Nov. 18, Center on Contemporary Art, 114 Third Ave S., Seattle; free (206-728-1980 or cocaseattle.org)
A new exhibition, in CoCA’s gallery in the art-centric Tashiro Kaplan building in Pioneer Square, pays homage to that legacy. According to a news release, the exhibition celebrates “the diverse range of artists that represent CoCA’s legacy best: those who are fiercely independent and experimental, with an unapologetically rough hewn nature, and often with an equally bold political statement.”
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If you’re familiar with CoCA’s history, you’ll probably revel in the selections, nodding at the artists’ names and remembering their involvement in past programming.
If you’re unfamiliar with CoCA’s history, you’ll get a taste of the variety of work that CoCA has embraced and its overall gutsiness. It’s a vivid, eclectic exhibition, with a lot of striking work packed into a narrow space.
It flourishes some big hitters: Laurie Anderson, Chuck Close and Gary Hill. There’s a playful “boob print” by the notorious performance artist Annie Sprinkle next to Alice Wheeler’s iconic photograph of iconoclast Kurt Cobain.
Immediately upon entering the show, you’re greeted by a video/sound installation by visual artist, composer and musician Paul Rucker, who explores issues of race, injustice and community. Following along the same wall are compelling images by Juan Alonso-Rodriguez, Shepard Fairey and Roger Shimomura, creating a dialogue about culture, inclusion and representation.
On the opposite wall, artists explore more formal, aesthetic concerns. I really enjoyed seeing a vigorous painting by Mary Ann Peters next to material from the light and space artist James Turrell. Not only does Peters explore in paint some themes shared by Turrell — light, structure, perception — but she was one of the founders of CoCA and helped install the first exhibition in 1982: “Four Light Installations” by Turrell.
Turrell’s catalog and floor plan for that original show are placed next to an image of “Roden Crater,” his current, enormous project that transforms a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona into a work of art. It was such an effective grouping that I found myself craving more of that kind of contextual material in order to learn how other works had been part of earlier shows, how they fit into the goals and histories of CoCA and how CoCA has played a role in the careers of the artists.
But it’s not a huge show, much smaller, in fact, than last year’s “35 Live: CoCA Members’ Show 2016,” which celebrated the organization’s 35th anniversary with an eclectic assembly of work across three locations.
“Legacy” is a tighter showcase and, perhaps, an indicator of a new direction. While CoCA has always prioritized the present, “Legacy” suggests that CoCA is feeling the success of its age and a need to document and reflect on its past.