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Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Visual Arts
How the spaces we live in come to inhabit us

By Sheila Farr
Seattle Times visual arts critic

“Center” by Roger Feldman (wood, concrete and mixed media), now installed inside Tacoma Art Museum.
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In a juried art exhibition, the only constant is the person doing the judging. In this year's Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum, the selection was done by high-profile Russian conceptualist Ilya Kabokov with his wife and creative partner, Emilia Kabokov.

Ilya Kabokov has a past with TAM. He took part in the extraordinary show "Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism" displayed in Tacoma during the Goodwill Art Festival in 1990. His subtle installations of mundane objects are all about the spaces we live in and that, in turn, come to inhabit us. That topic of exploration aligns very well with the theme of this year's biennial, called "Buildingwise," set to honor TAM's new home in downtown Tacoma.

From a flood of more than 500 submissions, the Kabokovs narrowed the show to some 80 artists and 100 works. Each of the artists aims, in his or her own way, at reflecting the way our buildings and what's inside them are extensions of ourselves. It wouldn't have hurt to narrow the field a little further; the galleries are brimming, and some of the work is forgettable. But half the fun of this kind of show comes from a touch of chaos.

My all-time favorite concept for a juried show was a CoCA Northwest Annual of the 1990s judged by the Kabokovs' fellow Russian émigrés Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Komar and Melamid put forth the theory that juried art competitions — sold to artists as a way to get their work recognized by celebrity critics or curators — are in fact nothing more than crap-shoots.

Exhibit review


Northwest Biennial: Buildingwise, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 6, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma (253-272-4258 or www.tacomaartmuseum.org).
To prove their point, they selected the work for the show by throwing dice. The results made some people furious, including a few artists who had paid good money to be judged worthy by the Russians. I loved it. For me there was more to like in a show chosen by chance than there was in the previous year's NW Annual.

Anyway, back to Tacoma. Unlike the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York, where some of the smallest and quietest pieces stuck with me, at TAM the bigger, less orthodox installations piqued my imagination. I gravitated toward Roger Feldman's "Center," conceived as a meditation tool based on the Quaker practice of centering. It's like a hybrid of a James Turrell Skyspace, a Japanese teahouse and a toolshed. I love the humbleness of the materials — chicken wire, boards, fabric, concrete — and the elegant way Feldman puts them together in a bouquet of porous and dense textures, that leads you inward through a gentle maze.

"Unraveling" by Cara Jaye (fiber and video installation).
The architectural form of "Center" stands rooted beside the sensual, organic mass of Roderick Romero's "Nest (Scaled Down)" a huge hive of reeds, twigs, fir branches and rosemary vines that suspends from the ceiling with a steel bell nestled in its core. Besides the fragrant physical lusciousness of the thing, it holds all the tension of its potential to ring out and fill the museum with sound: a nice thing to think about.

The piece that could have held me enthralled for hours — a custom-fit with our deepest Western civilization images of home and partnership — is Cara Jaye's fiber and video installation "Unraveling." Jaye, an instructor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, also has another zinger piece in this show called "Bed Bug Back."

In "Unraveling," Jaye, like zillions of artists and writers before her, tapped into Penelope's story from "The Odyssey," the part where she stalls her suitors by insisting she can't remarry until she has completed a shroud for her aged father-in-law. Such a well-worn image might easily turn trite, but Jaye doesn't go for anything fancy. She just makes it clear, as it never was to me before, how Penelope could have woven a shroud by day and unraveled it by night, doing it undetected for months or even years.

Here's her image: The symmetry of an easel-like loom, the purity and fineness of the translucent white fabric, the voluptuous waves of unraveling cloth — so much work! — and then the shock of a video projection, with the partially woven shroud as screen, of the artist's hands delicately, painstakingly, thread by thread, unraveling her own handicraft. It says everything we need to know about ingenuity, timelessness, fidelity, perseverance and the meaning of home.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com


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