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Originally published August 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 31, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Bumbershoot

Putting street art under the lights

Yes, it's Bumbershoot time again and, as usual, the visual-arts lineup has its highs and lows. My two favorite projects are "Claimin' Space...

Seattle Times art critic

Bumbershoot: Visual Arts

Exhibits: "Claimin' Space — Context and Urban Art," "Portable Confessional Units," "The Seattle-Havana Poster Show," Instant Coffee at the Henry Art Gallery Satellite; "Learning to Love You More"; and "A Place to Be." Noon-6 p.m. today (free) and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Monday (with festival admission) The Northwest Rooms at Seattle Center.

Yes, it's Bumbershoot time again and, as usual, the visual-arts lineup has its highs and lows. My two favorite projects are "Claimin' Space — Context and Urban Art," an inquiry into street art, curated by Damion Hayes, of BLVD. Gallery, and "Portable Confessional Units" by the collaborative group PDL.

I also enjoyed the north-meets-south graphics of "The Seattle-Havana Poster Show" and a quick visit to the experiential, homey-chic installation "Nooks: If You Lived Here You'd Be Home by Now" by Canadian artist collective Instant Coffee. To my taste, the "Nooks" concept — creating a formally rigorous but casually accessible environment for interaction — felt a bit forced and clichéd. (I question, too, why the Henry Gallery or any art museum should be given a satellite at Bumbershoot when so many independent projects are in need of exhibition space.)

On the other hand, I was not wowed by "Learning to Love You More," a Web-based project of multidisciplinary artist Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher. It's translated here into an interactive self-help project devoted to neighbors of Bumbershoot arts organizer Bob Redmond. It's the kind of thing that makes more sense staying online.

And, finally, how in the world did the self-serving "A Place to Be" — an homage to the late, obscure British rocker Nick Drake assembled by his estate — end up being chosen as a Bumbershoot visual-art exhibit?

But let's be happy and stick with the good stuff. I loved browsing through the "Claimin' Space" show and pondering the paradox that is graffiti art. Here are some of the questions that come up: If artwork is made on the sly in the streets, does it belong in art galleries? What's the difference between notoriety and fame? If you've gained recognition for your "tag" — the pseudonym street artists use to sign their work — should you reveal your real identity and reap the financial rewards in a gallery? How cynical is it to simply turn your tag into a brand and morph into a viral marketing machine for an advertising agency?

Hayes, a smart and articulate guy, gave me a primer in the various dilemmas urban artists face, not the least of which is the possibility of doing time for vandalism. So, I asked him, where is the line between art and vandalism? "Without permission it is vandalism, no matter what the artistic qualities," Hayes says. But, he was quick to add: "One person's vandalism is another person's masterpiece."

Among the standouts in this show (all for sale, by the way) are Florida artist Bask's multilayered technique, Seattle artist Warren Dykeman's graphically powerful images, New Yorker Oliver Vernon's apocalyptic visions and the hard-edge sprayed geometrics of Seattle's Sam Sneke.

One thing about street art that's easy to figure out is the age thing. Most graffiti writers are kids between 14 and 22, Hayes says. Once artists with the itch for self-expression get to the age of property ownership, many start to empathize with the urge to wring somebody's neck for spray painting stuff on their fence, even if it is totally cool.

That in mind, the next stop for visiting graffiti artists or anyone else who may be holding back some secret thought, word or deed, should definitely be one of the "Portable Confessional Units" created by PDL (aka Jason Puccinelli, Jed Dunkerley and Greg Lundgren). I took a deep breath and stepped inside one with Puccinelli in the role of confessor and, before I knew it, he was confessing to me!

Puccinelli admits it is easy for roles to get mixed up in this participatory installation. "It's sort of like thoughts you hold in and are unable to share begin to act like a filter," he said. "They prevent you from being open and create a lot of blockages." He likens it to constipation, which makes sense. So, we sat there for a while and had a good talk.

I wondered aloud through the confessional screen how much of this project might be considered theater and how much visual art. Puccinelli was philosophical: "A bit of theater, a bit of visual art: My boundaries for all those worlds are pretty thin."

I ended our session with a little confession of my own, which Puccinelli assured me would remain utterly confidential: "It's all about trust," he said.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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