Seattle artist Scott Fife can make cardboard look like almost anything: a pink taffeta party dress, a chenille bedspread, a chunk of charred wood, a battered vinyl armchair. His Tacoma Art Museum...

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Seattle artist Scott Fife can make cardboard look like almost anything: a pink taffeta party dress, a chenille bedspread, a chunk of charred wood, a battered vinyl armchair. His Tacoma Art Museum retrospective, “Scott Fife: Northwest Perspective,” proves again that he can do near-miraculous things with materials.

The show highlights several groups of Fife’s sculptural work dating from 1975 to 2004, including trompe l’oeil tableaus, wall-reliefs, free-standing sculptures and a series of portrait heads. They are all constructed mainly of archival cardboard, pastel and paint.

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Individually, the pieces are extraordinary in their craftsmanship. An enormous freestanding sculpture of a seated puppy dominates the gallery, utterly lifelike in its posture, proportions and expression. Two looming, life-size wall-reliefs of horse skeletons, rear and bolt like creatures from the Apocalypse as they transform from two dimensions to three. A couple of battered armchairs look convincingly real. Two vintage dresses and a man’s suit hang against the wall, seemingly ready to slip on.

Exhibit review

“Scott Fife: Northwest Perspective” 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 2 at Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma (253-272-4258 or

I’ve long been a fan of Fife’s work. Yet despite all his technical finesse, there was something unsatisfying about seeing this progression of imagery from the past 30 years. He can clearly make anything he sets his mind to: What isn’t clear is why. There are references to pop art and the work of other artists, such as Jim Dine and, perhaps ironically, Jeff Koons (the giant puppy), but I couldn’t find a clear sense of direction or purpose in the evolution of Fife’s imagery. I found myself responding to the technique more than the content of the work.


“Early 1950’s New Look Suit with Pearls” is among Scott Fife’s cardboard works.

For the past several years Fife has been engrossed in “The Idaho Project,” a series of 20 portrait heads inspired by a violent labor dispute in early 20th-century Boise. Lawyer Clarence Darrow and labor leader Eugene Debs were among the stars of a courtroom drama that drew the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt and actress Ethel Barrymore. Their faces are among Fife’s portrait heads from “The Idaho Project,” installed in a separate section of the gallery. They are remarkable objects in themselves, in the style of Roman busts, each exquisitely layered and detailed.

As an installation, though, “The Idaho Project” is more puzzling than engaging. The piece was motivated by a gripping historical event, but as viewers we aren’t privy to the strong emotional and political content of the story. We see a group of faces, most of whom are unknown, with labels providing bare-bones descriptions of their roles in the trial. They face us in a choirlike group, so their relationships to one another aren’t obvious. Fife made some heads larger and some quite small to indicate their importance in the trial — Darrow, for example, is big; the jurors diminutive. Maybe the way the busts are set on the pedestals — a few tipped on their sides or upside down — was meant to evoke an ancient ruin. To me, it came across as arbitrary and inexplicable.

Fife told me a couple of years ago, while working on the series, that he read a book about the trial and became fascinated with it. He grew up near where the events took place. His strong response to the story motivated “The Idaho Project.” Sadly, though, the drama and intensity of the historical event didn’t get translated into imagery that the rest of us could identify with, too.

For Fife, the portraits represent something tangible and vivid. The place, the people and the conflict he knows so much about live for him in each one of those images. For many viewers, though, the faces will be unfamiliar relics of an obscure historical event. There’s not enough metaphorical content to draw us in, intellectually or emotionally.

Sheila Farr: