Labor-intensive, visually compelling works by the Bahamian artist seem to challenge outworn heroes and cultural assumptions of the Western canon, yet some of Strachan’s simplest pieces may be his most pleasing.
Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan is nothing if not ambitious. His theatrical, packed-to-the-gills exhibition at the Frye Art Museum aims to supplant the outworn heroes and cultural assumptions of the Western canon with new heroes, histories and paradigms.
Although Strachan’s artistic means are familiar — favoring installations, collage and repurposed signage — he has an extremely effective visual style, and to say that his work is labor-intensive would be a vast understatement. Take the three giant photographic portraits that are part of the artist’s Constellation series, depicting diverse historical personalities he considers unjustly neglected. Here, spotlit in a darkened room and reflected like the Lincoln Memorial in a temporary reflecting pond placed on the floor, are Everest climber Tenzing Norgay, composer Butch Morris and Queen Min of Korea.
We’ve seen many examples of photos that are made up of swarms of smaller images, but these are jigsaw puzzles with thousands, not hundreds, of glued-on pieces, many appearing small enough to have been set in place with tweezers. Adding a further layer of complexity, the night sky surrounding the portraits has hundreds of hand-numbered stars, as well as a motley assortment of outer-space vehicles and floating bombs.
Tavares Strachan: Always, Sometimes, Never
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, open until 7 p.m. Thursdays, through April 15. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free admission (206-622-9250, www.fryemuseum.org)
I, for one, could do with a bit less complexity. The artist includes Mao, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama in the vast array making up 19th-century Queen Min, but why Stalin, George Wallace and John Lennon, not to mention drones, Coke bottles and automatic weapons? The giant pond is also perplexing, a mannerism that is repeated throughout the show, as if the artworks themselves aren’t strong enough without the addition of stage lighting and watery reflections.
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I’m more impressed with Strachan’s striking set of collages taking on the authority and scope of the encyclopedia, a quintessential product of the French Enlightenment. Twenty-six jumbo-sized encyclopedia pages (one for each letter of the alphabet) are overlaid with all manner of colorful imagery. The identity of the pasted-on pictures tends to the seriously obscure; the “F” page, for example, is hidden behind hazy Mylar decorated with a grid of nearly 100 numbered faces, not even one of which I recognized.
What redeems these pieces is Strachan’s design and color skill as a collage artist (surrealist collages didn’t make rational sense, either) and the fun he has subverting the text. Using the same typeface as the original, Strachan randomly inserts his own encyclopedia entries between more innocuous fare. On the “A” page, for instance, he includes an entry on the Ain Aouda secret prison that describes it as a suspected “black site” in Morocco that the CIA “reportedly paid the Moroccan state $20 million for the building of,” sitting alongside descriptions of the Ainu (indigenous people of Japan) and aircraft camouflage. We find ourselves hunting for the ersatz entries; after a while we start questioning more of the text than not, surely the artist’s ultimate point.
My favorite works in the exhibit are the simplest, when we can enjoy Strachan’s command of his craft without sorting through information overload or worrying that we’re not “getting it.” Two neon signs deliver social commentary — “I Belong Here” is exploding, as if in an artillery barrage, while “Us, We, Them” interprets tribalism as a Venn diagram. “Seated Panchen Lama” is a glass sculpture, a block in which a transparent replica of a child’s circulatory system has been somehow embedded. The ghostlike human presence is Strachan’s memorial to a Buddhist victim of China’s occupation of Tibet, and haunting as it is, it is the exhibition image which lodges the longest in memory.