A little museum with big aspirations: The new San Juan Islands Museum of Art, built in a former emergency medical center, brings exhibitions of Goya and Ai Weiwei to Friday Harbor.

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Three Puget Sound communities with high aspirations and energetic patrons have recently opened art museums close to their respective waterfronts: Winslow, Edmonds and Friday Harbor. Can a boat-to-the-art tour be far behind?

Friday Harbor is a particularly interesting case in point. Long before its current, architecturally striking building opened just a brief walk from the ferry dock, there was an entity called the San Juan Islands Museum of Art (SJIMA), a mostly volunteer group of local art lovers who mounted small, artistically ambitious exhibitions in vacant storefronts, sometimes with long gaps between shows. Seeking more permanent digs, in 2013 the museum purchased an unprepossessing emergency medical center which, after being imaginatively opened out with glass atriums and weathered-steel cladding, officially launched in February 2015 with an exhibition of glass art by Northwest legend William Morris.

A few months later, the museum further defined its identity by choosing Walla Walla artist, China scholar and museum veteran Ian Boyden as its as executive director (and only full-time staffer). Boyden impressed the board with his vision for a museum featuring art about the connection between people and place, and a plan to collaborate with regional and international artists to mount thematic shows of original, environmentally aware work. Boyden cited the soon-to-close Suyama Space — a Seattle venue for expressly commissioned, site-specific art — as an inspiration for his own program, particularly those installations intended for SJIMA’s two-story glass atrium, the public face of the museum.

Exhibition review

‘Ai Weiwei: Fault Line,’ ‘Francisco Goya: Sleep of Reason’ and ‘Dana Lynn Louis: As Above, So Below’

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, Saturdays-Sundays through April 11, San Juan Islands Museum of Art, 540 Spring St., Friday Harbor; $10, free for visitors 18 or younger (360-370-5050 or sjima.org).

The three current one-person exhibitions at SJIMA are all loosely linked by the artist’s engagement with social and political concerns, Boyden says. Social awareness is not, however, the first association one might have with the diaphanous creations of Portland sculptor Dana Lynn Louis, whose vine-like hangings are the current atrium feature. A multimedia array including painting on the museum windows, suspended mica disks, glass beads and vessels, plus mirrors and videos, the work is perhaps a bit too ambitious for its own good, suggesting all manner of natural and man-made forms without quite settling on any one theme in particular.

The exact opposite is true of the two other shows — artists Francisco Goya and Ai Weiwei are laser-focused on making overt political and polemical statements. Goya (1746-1828) was one of the pioneers of political art, and his works inspired by the Spanish struggle with Napoleon have never been surpassed in their impact. The prints on view are a catalog of atrocities, mutilations, executions and general mayhem, and it’s telling (and intentional) that we often have no idea which side is which. An apt wall quote accompanying the Goya prints — the words of Ai — applies equally to many of the characters on view: “The biggest crime of a dictatorship is to eradicate human feeling from people.”

The room devoted to Ai also features the sort of serious and challenging art one would not normally associate with a small museum in a tourist town. The good news about Ai, whose persecution by the Chinese government has made him famous, is that his work stands up very well on its own. Political art can’t simply narrate facts, figures and incidents: We have television and newspapers for that. It has to be visually compelling and poetic enough to transcend the narrative — a much harder project.

In Ai’s installation “Fault Line,” devoted to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and its aftermath, the grim poetry is articulated in a few simple elements: Eight rosewood boxes, each a variation on a coffin shape, contain hand-carved marble replicas of the twisted rebar the artist salvaged from ruined schools in which thousands of children died, the victims of shoddy construction. Behind the coffins, mounted floor-to-ceiling on the museum walls, are enormous charts listing over 5,000 names of dead students.

The white-marble rebar animates what could otherwise be dry and prosaic. Nestled in contrasting black foam, their twisting shapes eloquently suggest pain and suffering, as well as the human spine, stripped out from the body and bent by unimaginable forces. Each box is a record of a different, individual, tragedy. The wall charts — all in Chinese — provide a background texture like a gray silk curtain, the overwhelming amount of information making clear in a very visceral way the scale of the casualties.

As is always true with Ai, there are multiple, less obvious associations. The ironically gorgeous marble comes from the same quarry as that used for Mao’s tomb, and the meticulous hand carving of the rebar copies traditional Chinese craftsmanship normally reserved for precious objects. Ai employs craftspeople on a massive scale. One of the main reasons work by an artist of his stature is appearing in such an out-of-the-way venue (besides Ai and Boyden having a connection through mutual friends) is the quantity of pieces being produced in his multiple workshops: Ai may be the world’s most widely exhibited contemporary artist.

Elsewhere in the installation is an hourlong video created by a citizen investigative team that Ai organized to collect the data used for his charts — a harrowing and dangerous enterprise. Ai may be a latter-day Goya, but Goya made nice with his political enemies in a way the confrontational Ai has no interest in emulating.