Sculptor Cris Bruch reflects on the Dust Bowl disappointment of his ancestors in an eerie and moody show called “Others Who Were Here” at Frye Art Museum.
Thoughtful, spare and evocative, Seattle artist Cris Bruch’s “Others Who Were Here” transforms the Frye Art Museum into a hushed memory palace.
It brings to life the High Plains past of Bruch’s grandparents and great-grandparents: German farmers who eked out a living on land that soon turned to Dust Bowl desolation. It articulates the power of drought and wind over make-do effort. It juxtaposes hard work with hollow results.
In short, “Others Who Were Here” is an eerie and elegiac ghost town.
Cris Bruch: ‘Others Who Were Here’
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, until 7 p.m. Thursdays, through March 27. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or fryemuseum.org).
Bruch (pronounced “Brew”) is a sculptor whose past work has a fanciful, organic flair. “The Politics of Time,” for example, is a confection of wooden rings and spheres that resemble some odd animal trying to come into existence, while “What Do You Want to Talk About?” resembles cracked-open halves of a doughnut-shaped nutshell. In “Others,” however, he’s going for something more minimal, melancholy and elusive.
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Although he grew up in Missouri rather than on the plains of Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, he feels connected with the old haunts of his grandparents and great-grandparents on an almost subliminal level. As he put it during the show’s press preview, he can’t help wondering about “the effects of landscape on people” and the way those effects can be passed down through the generations.
The pieces in “Others Who Were Here” were also inspired by his recent travels through the High Plains, past long-abandoned farmsteads and towns so small they can’t afford to tear down the grain elevators they no longer use.
Bruch’s work isn’t always straightforwardly depictive. Three wall pieces in wood — “Jack,” “Harrow” and “Helve” — suggest oversized farm implements without spelling out what their uses might be. His large-scale, mazelike installation “Pent” clearly references a cattle corral without operating like one. The perversely titled “Wide Open” is a corrugated-iron enclosure you can’t enter that simultaneously suggests a strangely circular barn shed and the spiraling contours of a tornado.
With some pieces, Bruch identifies his inspiration precisely. In the wall panel for the show’s most figurative piece, “Emollients: Ingrams’, Marinello’s, Purola, Velvatone,” he notes that these oversized cold-cream jars rendered in blown glass are based on actual jars he found behind a roadside local-history museum in eastern Colorado that two of his great-uncles helped build.
But when enigma suits his purposes, he’ll run with it. “Eidolon,” which takes its name from a Greek-derived word meaning “phantom” or “apparition,” is a half-inch-thick, shallow-curved aluminum shelf emerging from a wall above the viewer’s head. Something in the way it’s lit creates a radiance that shines toward the ceiling — but you’d have to climb on a ladder to see how Bruch pulled off this haunting effect.
The two most atmospheric pieces in the show have rooms to themselves. In one gallery, nine knee-high sculptures made of flannel, fiberglass and epoxy appear to be silos, grain elevators and farm sheds shrouded in ghostly white fabric. They’re actually hollow inside — the shroud is the sculpture — and their titles are borrowed from the names of fading towns on the plains.
“Conservatory” is a single, if fragmented, structure you can walk through: a cathedral-like framework assembled from salvaged church windows and built on the scale of a greenhouse. For older generations in his family, Bruch said, church was important in terms of “mutual aid and social contact.” At its best, he added, it was “a structure for nurturing incipient life.”
Like a view across the plains, “Others Who Were Here” is an exhibit stripped of all clutter. Its empty, forlorn breathing spaces make you want to linger.