Entering ceramic artist Walter McConnell’s “Itinerant Edens: A Measure of Disorder,” at Bellevue Arts Museum, feels a bit like intruding on a living laboratory.
Entering ceramic artist Walter McConnell’s “Itinerant Edens: A Measure of Disorder” feels a bit like intruding on a living laboratory.
The ambient lighting is dim. The spot-lit male specimens stand tall inside their terrariumlike, plastic-sealed chambers. Condensation on the plastic softens their contours, making their features blurry. As you stroll through the galleries, you realize this isn’t art you’re observing from the outside.
This is art that surrounds you.
Walter McConnell’s “Itinerant Edens: A Measure of Disorder”
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. free first Fridays, through Feb. 11. Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; $5-$12 (425-519-0770 or www.bellevuearts.org).
The seven pieces in “A Measure of Disorder” make up the latest chapter in McConnell’s ongoing “Itinerant Edens” series. He has erected these site-specific installations in museums around the country, usually on a tight deadline. At this point, as he explained at a recent news preview, he has his process down to a routine.
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He arrives in town, checks out the venue and inspects the donated clay he’ll be working with (10,000 pounds of it at the Bellevue Arts Museum). For help in fabricating the show, he reaches out to the local ceramic community (University of Washington students and Seattle sculptor George Rodriguez, in this case).
The figures are based on digital scans of live models that are then 3D-printed as plaster molds. Terracotta clay is cast and pulled from the molds, and the resulting figures are bisque-fired.
On site at the museum, they’re placed on pedestals and covered in wet clay. The garden-like features surrounding them — flowers, foliage, coral-like structures, “stone” ledges — are created entirely from raw clay. At the end of the show, most of that clay will simply be recycled.
The seven pieces in the show bear no individual titles. Instead, McConnell thinks of them as a single work of art. He also views them as “events” as much as objects.
“They’re dependent on light, heat, moisture, time,” he says. “All of them act a bit like a slow fountain. There’s 30 percent water in all that clay, so the heat brings the water out. It rains down the inside of the scrim and creates this atmosphere. They’re almost like their own encapsulated biospheres.” Sometimes they fog up. Sometimes, when the condensation drips down the plastic, the figures inside come into plainer view.
McConnell sees his work as alluding to creation myths from around the world. But it’s also a family affair. In one gallery, a towering nude of his 85-year-old father, his arms raised in seeming horror, faces down a trim, poised, small-scale rendering of McConnell’s 21-year-old nephew.
McConnell had his father pose several different ways, then told him to do whatever he liked. His father started clowning around and the resulting scan, McConnell says, was “rather horrifying.” It looked like someone yelling into airless space and made him think of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” with its recurring line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Some figures allude to classic artworks. A self-portrait of McConnell takes its pose from 16th-century artist Lucas Cranach’s “Adam and Eve.” But you don’t need to know that. McConnell’s main interest, he says, is in “the choreography of the poses between all of the different figures. They have a sort of animated conversation based on their different gestures that are somewhat enigmatic and not easy to place.”
In haunting and beguiling ways, “Itinerant Edens: A Measure of Disorder” invites viewers to become part of that conversation.