From works by a much-hyped young artist to paintings so powerfully vibrant they almost seem sentient, there's lots of exciting art to see in Pioneer Square's galleries — and streets. We take you on a tour (food break included).

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Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series in which we look at art in a neighborhood.

Right now, one of my favorite views in Seattle is toward the back of the main room at Treason Gallery in Pioneer Square, just a couple of feet away from two large, abstract, circular paintings by local artist Brian Sanchez.

I say “abstract” because, technically speaking, they are: broken and bent bars of color. But that makes them sound too cold. Those colors (molten-metal reds, deep olive greens, moonless-midnight blues) are so powerfully vibrant they almost seem sentient. Walking into the gallery full of Sanchez’s towering canvases for the first time, the sensation was nearly physiological — like my eyeballs were humming and I’d developed sudden-onset tinnitus. (The drone-music soundtrack contributed to the effect.) Did I need to check my blood pressure?

“No, no,” gallery director Matthew McMurry said with a smile. Sanchez, McMurry explained, is an artist who spent some traumatic, youthful years in the Navy and his work draws on that dissonant energy. Sanchez uses a special kind of military-inspired paint (a vinyl emulsion that makes garden-variety oils and acrylics look about as lively as a burlap sack) and a careful study of color theory (in his case, how pigments absorb or reflect light, then vivify the optic nerve when placed next to each other) to achieve the effect.

A detail of Brian Sanchez’s 2018 work “Hot Yard” showing at Treason Gallery. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
A detail of Brian Sanchez’s 2018 work “Hot Yard” showing at Treason Gallery. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Sanchez emailed later to say his choice of paint was influenced by fiercely bright Day-Glo the military started using to coat planes circa World War II as a radar-cloaking tactic — and by the emotional intensity of working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, which once caught fire at sea. Thousands of sailors fought the blaze for days. (If there’s one place you don’t want to be, it’s on a warship on fire in the middle of the ocean.) “My experience there was overwhelming and still being tended to emotionally every day,” Sanchez wrote. “Most of my palette is influenced by colors I was surrounded by while I served.” The names of those two, red-heavy, circular paintings take on a different inflection when you know the backstory: “Roof Walk” and “Cinder Skipper.” 

That’s just one small peek into the dozens of shows up this month in Pioneer Square. If you spend an afternoon walking through the galleries, looking and listening, you’ll find peculiar stories of your own.

And it’s all free.

A visual vacation

For some people, making the gallery rounds is part of their monthly metabolism. Some go on First Thursday (the oldest known art walk in the United States, founded in 1981), but that night can be a distracting art-world jamboree with an emphasis on gossip and socializing instead of looking at the new views.

Every few weeks, artists, gallery owners and various helpers haul out ladders, levels, fresh light bulbs, wire clippers and the rest of their tools to mount a fresh round of shows — a visual vacation in your own town.

The Pioneer Square galleries are situated in a roughly 1-mile rectangle that begins 530 feet (or 211 steps) from the Pioneer Square bus/light-rail station. It’s a tight little circuit. At an easy pace, you could cruise past most of the galleries (major and minor) in about 20 minutes. But if you care to linger, and talk with the gallery staff, you could easily spend five hours on your feet, soaking it in. Along the walk, you’ll also pass blocks of murals and graffiti on old brick, where street artists (some respected old-timers, some young upstarts) jockey for paint position.

A street-art portrait of Earl “Fatha” Hines, a pianist who helped shape the history of jazz, on Second Avenue South. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
A street-art portrait of Earl “Fatha” Hines, a pianist who helped shape the history of jazz, on Second Avenue South. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

Whether they’re indoors and carefully manicured, or outside in the rain and hurly-burly, the walls of Pioneer Square are where the city dreams.

This month brings an especially strong round of exhibitions, in both the fancier galleries and the scruffier ones. Start at Pioneer Square Station. Walk south across Yesler Way, past the Aladdin Bail Bonds storefront and people hanging out on the sidewalk, affectionately (and sometimes not-so-affectionately) teasing each other, and start exploring.

(A note for the shy and awkward: Do not be intimidated! You’re here to enjoy yourself and not expected to know anything or buy anything — but if you’re art-collector-curious, there’s plenty of affordable work, and galleries often agree to monthly payment plans. When the gallery attendant asks if you have any questions, she genuinely means it. You can ask almost anything: “So, what’s this show all about?” Or: “What kind of paint is that?” Or: “How come that piece is only $120, but the one next to it is $14,000?” Or: “Did the artist choose this background music, or is that just what you’re into today?” People are almost always eager to talk, even if you’re an anonymous schmo in a dripping raincoat. I speak from experience. I am that schmo.)

Because the galleries are so close together, you can take any itinerary you like. Here’s one possible route.

Let’s begin

“Dmeiyue” by Kamryn Tulare, a 20-year-old from Lake Tapps who challenged herself to make 100 pencil portraits in roughly 200 days. They’re currently hanging at Statix Gallery in Pioneer Square.  (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
“Dmeiyue” by Kamryn Tulare, a 20-year-old from Lake Tapps who challenged herself to make 100 pencil portraits in roughly 200 days. They’re currently hanging at Statix Gallery in Pioneer Square. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

Statix (210 S. Washington St.): This month, Statix (part apparel and snowboard shop, part gallery) hosts Kamryn Tulare, a 20-year-old from Lake Tapps, Pierce County, near Puyallup. Last year, she challenged herself to draw 100 pencil portraits in 200 days. The result is “100 Heads,” an assembly of careful, intricate portraits with small, dense pencil marks. The personalities in each are strong: “Pestproblem,” a heavy-lidded young woman in narcotic, lightly nauseating shades of green-blue looks like one of the old French absinthe paintings; “Uggiebbyboy” is a rich graphite portrait of a young black face sprouting two pink hearts like wings from the sides of her (?) head. (If you’re still laboring under the delusion that you can’t afford to buy art, the best in the bunch are $40-$120.)

SOIL Gallery (122 Third Ave. S.): A full, sealed bottle of dirty-panties-infused vodka. Colorful space cruisers made from cardboard found in Los Angeles. The word “cocaine” written over and over again in white, acrylic-paint cursive, hung on the wall in little plastic bags. (Each “cocaine” sells for $60 per baggie, mirror not included.) A tentacular, candy-colored painting that looks like a demon octopus rising from lava-lamp sea. A painting of Axl Rose’s original idea for the cover of “Appetite for Destruction,” which he wanted to be a photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding (if you’re young or forgetful, that 1986 explosion on live TV killed all seven astronauts on board), plus installation video of him describing that in an interview. SOIL’s new group show “Escapism from LA” is a sometimes-macabre little carnival about the tension between here and there: People who flee south to LA to reinvent themselves, and people who flee in the opposite direction for the same reason.

Shift Gallery (312 S. Washington St.): Kara Mia Fenoglietto is a fashion designer for Nordstrom but has wanted to scratch a more experimental itch. (She also graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago.) For “Wallflower,” her first solo show, Fenoglietto designed and sewed traditionally female garments (dresses, slips) that seem both comfy and ominous. Comfy because they’re made with homey materials — frosty-green and pink curtain fabric, or a poofy, translucent coat stuffed with so many dried flowers it looks and vaguely smells like an oversized, wearable sachet of potpourri. Ominous because they seem haunted by the specters of enforced “feminine” aesthetics. (Her artist statement says the pieces “explore feelings of anxiety and entrapment using patterns and themes associated with interior design and homemaking accessories mass marketed to women.”) One pink silk slip is held with C-clamps, along with flowers, between large sheets of plastic. The pressed flower is a rich metaphor.

Anthony White with his 2018 self-portrait “Disco Inferno,” showing at Greg Kucera Gallery. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Anthony White with his 2018 self-portrait “Disco Inferno,” showing at Greg Kucera Gallery. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Greg Kucera Gallery (212 Third Ave. S.): This is the show everybody’s talking about. Young Cornish graduate Anthony White sucked up most of the art-PR oxygen in the press this month with his “Smoke and Mirrors.” Kucera said White is the youngest artist he’s ever invited to do a solo show, and perhaps the only one to sell out every painting on the first day of his exhibition — by noon this past First Thursday, to be exact. (“Very few artists ever have a sold-out show over the entire course of their exhibition,” Kucera said. “This was completely new and surprising.”) White’s shiny compositions of 20-something detritus (cellphones, tacos, cigarettes, bared nipples, drugs, credit cards and razor blades near drugs, liquor bottles, a slice of sprinkled birthday cake, fast-food wrappers) look like some 16-century Italian mannerist decided to paint stills from Harmony Korine’s Florida-decadence film “Spring Breakers” using molten plastic and lipstick. White, in fact, uses a kind of molten plastic, painting his bright, busy canvases with a device that extrudes the material (a bio-plastic called PLA) like a hot-glue gun. The result is so textured, it looks woven. (Those familiar with New York artist Erin M. Riley, who has been hand-weaving similar hodgepodge images on tapestries for years — butts, breasts, tattoos, drugs — may notice a passing resemblance.)

You’ll find something quieter but stranger in the backrooms: Joe Rudko’s mind-bending manipulations of old, found photographs. There’s “Authority Figure,” a hallucinatory, fragmented image of some man in an official-looking cap and tie (is he a cop? a soldier?) pieced together from over 600 tiny fragments of old black-and-white head shots of men in uniform. Or “Road,” which takes a slice of a photograph of a road, then extends it in a long wave with spotting pen so it looks like an undulating, grayscale flag that unfurls into a mirror on the side of the frame, stretching it into infinity. While White is locked in a semi-erotic wrestling match with the garish and trashy American present, Rudko is gazing gloomily but impishly back at Americana noir.

Joe Rudko with his 2018 work “Calendar” at Greg Kucera Gallery. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Joe Rudko with his 2018 work “Calendar” at Greg Kucera Gallery. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Meal — and graffiti — break

Hungry yet? A quick canvass of artists, art dealers and gallery attendants turned up a rewardingly varied list of their favorite places for lunch. Most often recommended: Manu’s Bodega (100 Prefontaine Pl. S.), tucked just behind a bus stop. Manu’s serves “Latin comfort food in Seattle,” which means tacos, Dominican empanadas (they’re made with yucca flower, not wheat, so they’re gluten-free), a budget rice/beans/soup lunch, pressed Cuban sandwiches and more. Runners-up: The London Plane (300 Occidental Ave. S.) for extraordinarily tasty but slightly pricier lunches (sample dish: poached albacore with red lentil-carrot purée, salt boiled potatoes, pickled fennel, celery and olives); Il Corvo (217 James St.) for chef Mike Easton’s inventive but meticulously made pasta (if you haven’t been, do yourself the favor — though it’s only open weekdays for lunch); Nirmal’s Indian restaurant (106 Occidental Ave. S.) with thalis, curries and roti rolls; McCoy’s Firehouse (173 S. Washington St.) where Statix owner Peter Robinson (aka Ten Hundred) started getting the burger without a bun when he began eating a low-carb diet; Bad Bishop (704 First Ave.), a quality but comfortable bar Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement recently described as “like magic — the kind of magic you get when you subtract the hype, forget about the marketing and merely make something you think people will like”; King Noodle (615 S. King St.), a few blocks away in the Chinatown International District; and the entire Chinatown International District.

The graffiti (all over): Pioneer Square probably has as much art outdoors as indoors. You can view one particularly dynamic wall by standing in front of Seattle Fire Department headquarters (301 Second Ave. S.) and turning around. The wall across the street, and across the parking lot, is used by established street artists (like NTG) as well as upstart graffiti types who irritate the others by tagging over more meticulous work. As of this writing, you could see the remnants of a few NTG pieces (including a whisk broom with the slogan “sweep leaves, not lives,” a reference to homeless-encampment sweeps) and a large, colorful mural in homage to a street artist who died last year, just before his 25th birthday. By the time you read this, who knows what it will look like? Walk the full circumference of the building to see much, much more — plus a row of tents lining the sidewalk, a stark reminder that King County now has the third-largest homeless population in the United States.

One of the more popular street-art walls in Pioneer Square is visible across the street from Seattle Fire Department headquarters. This mural is an homage to a street artist who died last year. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
One of the more popular street-art walls in Pioneer Square is visible across the street from Seattle Fire Department headquarters. This mural is an homage to a street artist who died last year. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

Back to the galleries

Treason Gallery (319 Third Ave. S.): See above. Let Treason and Kucera be the crown jewels of your trip.

Linda Hodges Gallery (316 First Ave. S.): Like Kucera, Hodges has two shows this month on a tangentially related theme. In this case: eccentric ceramics. Sylwia Tur (she’s Polish; we’re allowed to pronounce it “Sylvia”) has made a series of patterned, ceramic impressions using everyday objects in her home: the top of a soap dispenser, a toilet-flush handle, outlet plugs, the top and bottom of a dog-food bowl. The resulting white plates seem abstracted and slightly spooky. Unlike White’s treatment of everyday objects as garish and explosive, Twur’s work feels like your broken microwave and cracked light switch might have souls that haunt the house long after you’ve thrown their corporeal forms in the trash. In the backroom, Nicholas Nyland’s strange, colorful platters and paintings look like they were salvaged from some cafe on the Mediterranean that suffered an acute case of existential melt. And he’s made a series of nonreflective mirrors (anti-mirrors?) with glazed porcelain which, by simply refusing to do their job and show you yourself, are an artful check on vanity.

More, more, more! That’s only the beginning. There are many more galleries in Pioneer Square: Method, Specialist, Mount Analogue, Gallery 110, others. Just go. Wander. Follow your eyes and ears (and, when you’re hungry, nose). Unlike going to a museum, a gallery walk doesn’t stick you in the atmosphere of one institution for an entire afternoon. And as soon as one show loses your interest, step outside for some fresh air and stroll to the next one.

In the next month or two, you can do it all over again. A whole new visual buffet will be waiting for you.