“The Time. The Place. Contemporary Art from the Collection,” which comes as the Henry celebrates its 90th anniversary, focuses on works acquired over the past 20 years; photography dominates the show and emerges as the indisputable strength of the museum’s permanent collection.
There’s plenty to see in the Henry Art Gallery’s celebration of its 90th anniversary. But one installation from 17 years ago — Jon Haddock’s “Screenshots” series — hits a nerve so raw that the piece could have been created just yesterday.
“Screenshots” employs the bland, detached visual style of the computer game, “The Sims,” for withering purposes. Its 20 chromogenic color prints of Haddock’s digital drawings recreate indelible media moments of the past half century. Assassinations, war atrocities, mass shootings — they’re all here, along with scenes lifted from American movies (including, hilariously, “The Sound of Music”).
Haddock’s stated aim was to reanimate “significant events from the past that have been seared into his memory.” “Screenshots” reminds us that artists attempting to encompass new realities often resort to devious means — in this case, wrapping trauma in the visual language of a video game.
‘The Time. The Place. Contemporary Art from the Collection’
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through March 25 for lower-level galleries and April 22 for upper-level galleries. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. $6-$10 (206-543-2280 or henryart.org).
“Screenshots” is a standout of “The Time. The Place. Contemporary Art from the Collection,” which comes as the Henry celebrates its 90th anniversary. But it has powerful company in a show that fills all three floors of the museum.
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Curated by Nina Bozicnik, the Henry’s associate curator, it focuses on works acquired over the past 20 years, most of them created in that same time period. Photography dominates the show and emerges as the indisputable strength of the museum’s permanent collection.
Bozicnik gives us generous samplings of some photographers’ endeavors. The 25 images of Australian photographer Tracey Moffatt’s “Up in the Sky,” for instance, have a cumulative impact similar to that of “Screenshots.” They seem to tell a scrambled story enacted by desperate or sinister characters crawling or wrestling in the sands of the Australian Outback. Mixing sepia shots with black-and-white, they evoke a world charged with tensions — including racial divides — without spelling out specifics.
Sharon Lockhart’s triptych, “Enrique Nava Enedina: Oaxacan Exhibit Hall, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City,” uses its multiple takes of its subject — a mason repairing a museum floor — to question what it means to exhibit a person vs. an object. Buster Simpson’s “Lichen Self Portrait” transforms outward observation (three close-up shots of lichen) into unexpected inward reflection.
Other photographers explore a documentary vein. Nan Goldin’s elegant shots of a drag queen strolling through Boston Public Garden and a French gay couple caught in a loving moment give a central place in her visual world to figures on the margin. Vietnam-born An-My Lê’s ghostly “Small Wars (Ambush I)” depicts another subculture: that of American Vietnam War re-enactors.
A number of photographers offer striking technical tour-de-forces. Joan Fontcuberta’s photomosaic, “Googlegram: Abu Ghraib,” constructs the iconic news-headline shot of American soldier Lynndie England taunting tortured Iraqi prisoners, using 10,000 tiny images of U.S. government and military officials behind the Iraq war. Shirin Neshat’s “Ghada” and “Sayed” are portraits of an Egyptian woman and man who suffered losses in the Arab Spring of 2011. Their faces are faintly overprinted with a poem in Farsi about “a person who is unable to extinguish or escape from their burning home.”
Chilean-American artist Rodrigo Valenzuela’s “Builder #1” is more subtle still. It’s a seamless composite, transforming disparate images into a plausible landscape featuring a shack and a crumbling pier in a desolate arid setting. This place may not exist, but it speaks volumes about what it takes to create a world for yourself when your life has been one of displacement.
Of the non-photographic installations, Richard Long’s “Puget Sound Driftwood Circle” is clearly king of the show. It’s exactly what it says it is: a vast driftwood mandala filling the floor of its gallery.
If there’s a weak link in the exhibit, it’s the video art. In our 4K-resolution era, Bill Viola’s 1983 “Anthem,” with its out-of-focus jump-cuts between urban landscapes, domestic interiors and heart surgery, looks lazily random and technically amateurish. Igor Kopystiansky’s edit of a fuzzy print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 film “L’Eclisse,” eliminating the characters’ dialogue, seems a pointless act of butchery. Far better to watch a crisp restoration of Antonioni’s classic.
The Henry is on firmer ground with its still-photography acquisitions.