The sculptor of the Seattle landmark “Changing Form” also collaborated with dancers to create dazzling video art.
Sculptor Doris Totten Chase is an integral part of Seattle’s urban fabric, thanks to her monumental 1969 piece, “Changing Form.” For close to half a century, this sculpture has served as a lens through which visitors and locals have taken in sweeping views of the city, Mount Rainier and Elliott Bay from Queen Anne Hill’s Kerry Park. But Chase the painter and Chase the video artist are lesser-known quantities.
Thanks are due, then, to the Henry Art Gallery for covering every angle of this shape-shifting artist’s career in “Doris Totten Chase: Changing Forms.” Thanks should also go to Chase’s two sons, who recently donated 59 of their mother’s works to the Henry’s permanent collection.
Chase (1923-2008) was born and raised in Seattle and studied architecture at the University of Washington before dropping out to marry and have a family. In 1950, when she was pregnant with her second son, her husband was left paralyzed by polio. Chase became the family’s breadwinner, teaching design and figure drawing and squeezing in her own artwork at night.
‘Doris Totten Chase: Changing Forms’
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct. 1. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle; $6-$10 (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).
She had some success with her paintings at the Seattle Art Museum’s Northwest Annuals in the 1950s, and, by 1961, had gallery representation in New York and Italy. The Italian show prompted her first visit to Europe. In the mid-1960s, she shifted to sculpture, and in 1970, she began working in the newly emerging field of video art. By 1972, with her sons grown, she left her marriage and started over in New York at age 49, living in a studio apartment in the fabled Chelsea Hotel.
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Financially, she struggled. But her new works — especially her “videodance” collaborations with choreographers and dancers, created specifically for the small screen — were glorious.
Meticulously crafted, they used dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York City Ballet and other prestigious dance troupes. They’re beautifully presented at the Henry, and you don’t want to just stroll by them. Each video monitor is equipped with headphones playing musical scores ranging from eerie to quirky.
“Dance 11” opens with Joffrey dancer Cynthia Anderson seated in a black void and gradually unfolding into dance. Her image is then doubled, showing her movement in both full-body shot and close-up. Eventually, three Anderson avatars move in strict time with one another. One of them, through Chase’s video magic, becomes a silhouette of changing colors: orange, green, magenta, blue. The outline, sharp at first, becomes a liquid blur, with its movement dynamics elastically amplified.
“The more I dematerialize the actual physical body,” Chase explained in 1983, “the more I actually visualize the movements of the dance.”
In other videodances (“Circles II,” “Moon Gates,” “Dance Frame”), performers interact with Chase’s kinetic sculptures as her tech wizardry transforms both dancers and sculptures into trippy, protean echoes of themselves. Rigorous editing and a wildly shifting palette of colors make them delectable eye candy. These are deliberate compositions that demand to be seen in full.
Chase’s later spoken-word “video theater” pieces don’t work as well (text is not her strong suit). But her early paintings are appealing; think Emily Carr slipping toward abstraction. And her small-scale sculptures are a delight: finely honed mind exercises that shed light on the artist who created Kerry Park’s “Changing Form” and came up with a whole new way of fusing moving image and dance.