John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler had been pushing each other to take art beyond their personal comfort zones — and get their audience to join in.

Share story

When the new Lawrimore Project gallery first opened at the edge of the International District last year, visitors found nothing inside the front door that looked like art. There were no paintings on the walls, no sculptures perched on stands — nothing but a plywood box standing 32 feet long and 12 feet high in the main gallery. From inside the box came the sound of hammering.

The building noises continued, day after day, for three full weeks. Gallery visitors circled the walls trying to guess what was going on inside.

Was it a conceptualist sound sculpture, a takeoff on Robert Morris’ 1961 “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making”? Or was it a Dada prank? The kind of thing Morris Graves pulled in 1953 when he “uninvited” some guests to his house for dinner, then watched from the bushes as they arrived — to find nobody home and an outdoor banquet table strewn with the remains of a feast.

The three artists inside the box knew certain historical lightbulbs would likely pop on in people’s heads when confronted with the noisy plywood box. But they had something different in mind. Since they first met in the late 1990s at Cornish College of the Arts, John Sutton, Ben Beres and Zac Culler had been pushing each other to take art beyond their personal comfort zones — and get their audience to join in.

For emerging artists, they’d already snagged a lot of attention. They were invited straight out of school to do installations in such desirable alternative art spaces as the former Consolidated Works and Suyama Space (at the Seattle architectural firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi) — both major coups. And since then their art projects have turned up in prominent public places: in the middle of Lake Washington; on the back of an open trailer that traveled around King County; at Bumbershoot; in the courtyard at Tacoma Art Museum.

But this was their first show in a commercial gallery, and when the walls came down, they wanted their audience to be dazzled. Even gallery owner Scott Lawrimore admitted he was clueless about what was going on: “It was part of the trust component, turning over the space and hoping they would do something interesting and good.”

THE IDEA OF three artists working as equal collaborators is unusual in this country. We tend to identify with the image of a lone genius toiling in the studio or a Warholesque factory with an art-star directing his drones. And the end result is supposed to be a commodity, something that can be bought, sold and maybe even break auction records.

But for Culler, Beres and Sutton, something was missing in that picture. They’re part of an evolving breed of artists who have found much art at the end of the 20th century hanging out on a limb like withered fruit: inaccessible and unsatisfying. While in school, they began looking for a way to get back to its roots as a communicative, experiential, often communal and, at best, spiritual endeavor. They wanted to stretch their own consciousness and have that effect ripple out to their audience.

After working together to complete a large project at school in the late 1990s, the young artists came to realize that for them “three heads, six arms and three wallets” could take them far beyond their individual efforts. Now, with their professional identity united as SuttonBeresCuller, that’s become their mantra.

“I don’t want to sound cheesy, but we love art. We want people to appreciate it. We want it to be about the experience. A lot of our strength is in the installation work,” Beres explained recently at his Capitol Hill apartment. “It’s so much more exciting to walk into a space that’s been perfected, where we have thought of every single thing, rather than going to the standard gallery and looking at a framed piece of art on the wall.”

Of course they all do that, too. The three of them are smart, serious, considerate and articulate about their work, and still living on the financial edge, a bare step above their student days. They’ve got the guts to take risks and put themselves in the public eye, but aren’t hooked on the kind of savvy self-promotion that is rampant in the art world these days. Their ambitions, nevertheless are — well, huge. The goal, Beres says simply, pointing to his bookshelf: “We want to be in those art history books.”

THE GROUP DYNAMIC that propels SuttonBeresCuller is much like a marriage. In fact, their working relationship is so close that before Beres proposed to his girlfriend, Toshi, last year, he broached the subject with Culler and Sutton. He was only partly joking when he said he was concerned about “the Yoko effect” (referring to John Lennon’s marriage). Fortunately, Beres’ art partners approved, and the couple wed in October.

Still, to understand SuttonBeresCuller as a unit, it helps first to meet the individuals.

When Beres entered Cornish in 1996 he came with pretty standard notions about art. The son of a pastor and eldest of four kids, Beres has a vacillating hairdo, a warm personality and easy charm. He says he “toed the line” growing up in a Portland suburb. After high school he spent a year at Capernwray Hall, a Christian missionary school in England. “It was the most memorable college ever, like a big church camp with roommates from India, Norway, Costa Rica,” Beres recalls. “They gave you two months to travel, and I went all over Europe.”

But Beres was there mostly out of his sense of duty and adventure. By the end of the year, he was certain: What he really wanted to do was study art. Beres returned to Portland, attended community college long enough to get a portfolio together, and applied to Cornish. He met Zac Culler in foundations class that first year. By 1997 the two became roommates and turned their funky Capitol Hill apartment into a makeshift studio.

“We were kind of collaborating. We had this huge canvas and a wall about this size and we stretched the whole thing with canvas and we just painted on it and photographed it as it went on,” Culler says. He lives upstairs from Beres now, in an artist-friendly building on the hill.

Culler, dark-haired, thoughtful and a bit shy, is the son of a management consultant and a social worker. He grew up in Pittsburgh, the middle child between two sisters, and knew by age 14 that he was cut out to be an artist. “I went to this creative- and performing-arts high school,” he says. “Half my day was academic and the other half was all art, from my sophomore to senior year. I went to one year of regular high school, and it was very apparent I was not going to hack it … I just got swallowed up.”

After graduating, Culler took a year off. When his plan to attend art school in Georgia fell through, he applied to Cornish.

Sutton entered Cornish a year after Beres and Culler. He’d grown up in Tacoma, unhappy with school and the pragmatic expectations of his bank-manager father. Wiry and intense, Sutton likes to think big and is quick to share his ideas. Maybe the young artist inherited a Sutton gene, because both his grandfather, whom he was named for, and his great-grandfather were architects.

Sutton, however, rebelled. He quit high school as a freshman and moved out of his parents’ house: “Kind of this need to prove myself,” he says now at age 32, sitting in the backyard of a fixer house he bought recently in South Park. “I remember my dad saying, ‘You’re never going to make it; you’ll come crawling back.’ And I’m like: ‘I’m not going to let that happen.’ “

He didn’t. He got a job as a mechanic at a 60-Minute Lube, completed his GED and enrolled in community college, taking lots of art classes. His grandmother stood behind his decisions and kept telling his skeptical parents: “He’ll be fine; he’ll be fine.”

THE THREE students first came together in 1998 in a sculpture class taught by Seattle artist Cris Bruch. Bruch soon became their mentor and the whip that drove them. “When Zac started in my class, like a lot of students at that age, there was just this tremendous amount of untapped potential,” Bruch recalls. “He was essentially kind of lazy and thought he could get away with it. So when I sensed that kind of potential in a student I often would press them to the point of — well, I lost a few students because it doesn’t always work to press.”

For Culler, Beres and Sutton, Bruch’s tough-love approach worked. He was the one professor who would say, ” ‘You’ve got to get to work. You’ve got all these opportunities,’ ” Beres remembers. “You’d make something you were really proud of and he’d pick it up and say, ‘This is a piece of shit.’ Kids were like crying in class. It was so refreshing.”

Each of the three had issues, Bruch says. He pegged Sutton as motivated but with “too many ideas to connect to and different approaches.” For Beres, the hurdle lay in finding a way to make his art authentic. He “had a lot of intensity and didn’t know where to put it — and a lot of compassion,” Bruch says. “There was kind of this gap between the different parts of his life and his art.”

Bruch’s class shook them up. They began hanging out together in the sculpture lab after school, working into the night until security guards threw them out. While other kids might slap together an assignment and cross their fingers, Culler, Beres and Sutton were driven: “We were all there every day. We were all working pretty big . . . talking about art and having these ideas.”

Beres went from making what Bruch called attractive but unexciting “gallery-ready” sculptural objects to experimenting with feats of physical endurance, influenced by artists like Chris Burden and Matthew Barney. Bruch remembers when Beres mixed up a big bed of plaster, greased himself up, put a couple of breathing tubes into his mouth and dropped in, face-down. He remained there for maybe a couple hours, constantly attended, until the plaster set and Beres signaled he wanted to get out. But the students couldn’t budge him. Bruch took over. “I had to take a razor blade and cut his beard away from the plaster. We could not get him out of there. Finally I just straddled this plaster mold, grabbed him by his belt loops and did a really quick dead lift, and it was like — POP. He came out.”

From that moment something clicked for Beres. “He came out of that kind of in shock, a little wild-eyed, and his art changed completely from that moment on,” Bruch says. “He began to do more and more of these performance-based things.” Bruch says Culler and Sutton both had similar, if not quite as dramatic, turning points.

The first time the three of them officially collaborated was on an installation Sutton had proposed for the final project in their sculpture class. He wanted to make a gallery out of a dangerous throughway, funneling traffic between the main sculpture lab and the metal shop into a parking lot. The college administration turned down the plan. Sutton persisted. By the time he got approval the administration had set such tough restrictions on the project, it seemed impossible. Sutton’s stubborn streak with authority flared up. He asked his friends for help. On a Sunday, they built walls, carpeted and put up track lighting, creating a picture-perfect, drive-through art gallery before school started Monday morning. Once it was finished, they left it in place for more than a month, with cars driving through daily, leaving tire marks on the carpet. Looking back, Culler doesn’t take credit for the project, even though the idea was initially his. “It felt like the first true collaboration.”

In 1999, when Culler and Beres started the fourth year of their five-year program at Cornish, they got a brutal surprise. Officials informed the class that the college was switching to a four-year program and this would be their final year. “It was devastating,” Beres remembers. He was angry. Other students were, too.

But the way Beres, Culler and Sutton reacted illustrates the kind of dedication that sets them apart. After Beres and Culler graduated, they spent the summer with Sutton working on a project in Woodinville. Then, when Sutton began his senior year, which included the use of studio space provided by the school, he proposed an idea: “I’ve got this great studio, why don’t we spend seven or eight months and just experiment?”

The three worked nonstop, assigning themselves to make a new performance/installation every two weeks, and putting out an open invitation to come participate in the one-night-only events. The shows were all about collaboration and audience involvement, posing the question: “Why does art have to be an object? Why can’t it be an experience?” Beres recalls. “We sort of had our own fifth year under the radar.”

Experiential has become a buzzword if not a cliché in the art world these days, and the basis for what Culler, Beres and Sutton were doing was no innovation. But their intensity, playfulness, devotion and craftsmanship drew attention. Word got around about their art happenings. One time they hired a life-drawing model, who sat nude in a re-created living room. Another time they piled thousands of keys outside their studio door, then locked themselves inside, watching their would-be visitors with a spy camera. In the end, the crowd caught on, covered up the camera and broke down the door. They collaborated with dancers and musicians, built a pond with dripping water, painted the place red.

Left to his own devices, Beres is a natural performer, but doesn’t care much about building stuff. Culler would rather do almost anything than get in front of a crowd, but loves to create intricate masks, costumes and documentation. Sutton is a big-picture guy, an expert builder with a bent for engineering and photography.

Their creative process is like rubbing sticks together, Culler says: “The three of us get together and start to say, ‘I’m thinking about this, I’m thinking about that,’ and we’ll spit out a hundred ideas. Eventually someone will say, ‘I like that; let’s think about that a little.’ ” By the time the group hashes it over, none of them can claim authorship.

LOCAL CURATORS had begun to notice their bimonthly openings, and by the time Sutton graduated, they were diving into the high-profile installation for ConWorks, in its new venue on South Lake Union. Working on a tight deadline, the three — now identified by their combined last names — put up a maze incorporating a variety of sculptural and interactive elements: a hallway with computer terminals, a huge pile of recycled newspapers and a 10-foot-tall suspended pencil that viewers could draw with. The complex installation was well-planned, well-constructed, gutsy — and a joyful experience.

Since then, the artists have kept their momentum with self-generated projects (some grant-supported), and invitations to show at Bumbershoot, the West Edge Sculpture exhibit outdoors on the Harbor Steps and other high-profile gigs. They did a performance piece at On the Boards, collaborating with the band “Awesome.” Tacoma Art Museum curator Rock Hushka let them crane-lift a vintage sailboat into the wavy stone courtyard of the museum, where, contained like a ship in a bottle, it seemed to waft in the breeze.

They’ve had an exceptional amount of critical attention and praise, but haven’t yet gotten cautious enough to try to keep everybody happy. Only rarely have they veered into projects that felt deliberately sensational. One of their thinnest ideas was the one that grabbed the most media attention. They built a floating island, complete with palm tree, and moored themselves on Lake Washington like shipwreck victims. They managed to slow traffic on the 520 Bridge and draw news photographers and helicopter interest. Then the wind came up and they had to call for help as their anchor pulled and waves drove them toward a collision with the bridge.

NOW FOUR YEARS later, having survived their faux shipwreck and collected even more eager fans, SuttonBeresCuller are holed up inside the big plywood box at the Lawrimore Space gallery. A couple hundred people are milling outside the walls, waiting to see what they’re up to — and the artists are scared. They don’t know if the massive walls are going to slide down smoothly or fall and crush those on the other side. The pulley system they’ve rigged up is hard to control. To keep the walls from toppling inward, Sutton and Beres stand bracing 2-by-4s against the corners while Culler mans the winch. A crack opens up and 30 faces are peering in, inches away: “Aaghhhh!” Culler is dripping sweat. Suddenly, everybody starts rushing in around him and his heart’s beating so fast he has to walk away. People are pouring in and he just keeps walking, right out of the gallery for a breath of fresh air. When he gathers his nerves and returns, the scene is almost incredible.

There, under the gallery roof is a full-scale Chinese restaurant — The Three Dragon — complete with tables, diners, street lamps, fire hydrant, city parking sign, tacky gold and red décor. A couple on a blind date is getting to know each other over dinner as gallery visitors swarm around them. It’s an installation, an illusion, a stage set, a performance that he’d helped construct and choreograph down to the tiniest detail. For the artists and their audience, it’s like watching a movie or a sitcom: A slice of life.

“It didn’t look false,” Sutton says. “Scale-wise, everything fit in. It was the room around it that looked false.”

Making the gallery look unreal was not exactly their intention, but it was, in a sense, the point. A lot of art has outgrown galleries these days, and Sutton, Beres and Culler are among the artists facing that contradiction head-on. They are looking for ways to make what they do relevant and accessible. The fact that they are showing in a commercial gallery and need to make money to sustain what they do is part of the juggling act that has dogged artists always, even those whose work is more clearly aimed at the commercial market.

It’s not that our standard notion of art is obsolete, but that in many cases it falls short of its role, Sutton believes. “Before contemporary culture, where we’re bombarded by all this media, television and stimulation everywhere, visual art was mass culture’s medium. Everybody looked at it; everybody was inspired by it. That doesn’t fit anymore,” Sutton says. “We talk all the time about wanting to make art that’s not for an art-educated audience, wanting to make art for anyone who’s willing to engage it — but that’s adding to this ongoing art dialogue as well.”

Culler says there’s a simple way to sum up what they are trying to do. “When I go to see work at museums, most of it, like 90 percent, I go through very quickly: There’s that and that. And every once in a while something will stop and grab you. What we talk about is making people want to stay and experience it.”

So far, it’s working.

Sheila Farr is The Seattle Times’ art critic. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.