Seattle architect Olson’s career retrospective in Bellingham
Seattle architect Jim Olson gets the full career-retrospective treatment at Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum — in a building that happens to be designed by Olson himself. Through June 9, 2013.
Seattle Times arts writer
‘Jim Olson: Art in Architecture’
Noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, noon- 8 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays through June 9, Whatcom Museum, Lightcatcher building, 250 Flora St., Bellingham; $4.50-$10 (360-778-8930 or www.whatcommuseum.org ).
“Keep it simple — more simple.”
Those words, scrawled in reference to a Mercer Island home he designed in 2004, appear to be Seattle architect Jim Olson’s guiding mantra as he dreams up buildings that, on the one hand, open themselves to nature and, on the other, serve as self-effacing frameworks for collections of fine art.
“Jim Olson: Art in Architecture,” a show at Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum that surveys the architect’s 50-year career, does a terrific job of immersing you in the mind and creative process of one of the founding partners of Olson Kundig Architects. It also lands you right inside an actual Olson project — for the exhibit is housed in the museum’s Lightcatcher building, designed by Olson himself.
Olson’s firm, when it was Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, won the 2009 Architecture Firm Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), described on the AIA website as “the highest honor that the American Institute of Architects can bestow on an architecture firm for consistently producing distinguished architecture.”
The show in Bellingham, which first was exhibited at the Museum of Art WSU (at Washington State University in Pullman), highlights both the consistency and the distinction of Olson’s achievements. It chronicles his career project by project, starting with his own Seattle apartments and his rural retreat in Longbranch at the southern end of Puget Sound.
Each project is presented as a kind of art installation with a huge vertical photo-collage as its focal point. The bottommost photos usually show an exterior shot of the building. The middle tiers work their way through the interiors, from living and dining spaces to upper-floor bedrooms. The top photos sometimes take you up onto the roof, where spectacular vistas lie in wait.
In Olson’s words, they ascend “from the materiality & rich complexity of art & the city to the spiritual quality of pure abstract light. ”
Most of the photo-collages are complemented by actual artwork from Olson-designed homes. One striking display from his own Seattle apartment — placing Don Brown’s 1998 sculpture, “Blue Man,” against Jeffrey Bishop’s large blue canvas, “Olson’s Cave” (1986) — shows what an eye for interior design Olson has, as he frames an entire residence around its art-object highlights.
The installations also include architectural models of the buildings in question and Olson’s notebook writings and sketches related to each project. In some, he observes the building’s surroundings in stream-of-consciousness fashion. In others, he makes suggestions to himself: “Maybe stairs are not here — just light.” (Artist James Turrell, as Olson acknowledges, is a huge influence on how these buildings incorporate light as a design element.)
Most of the homes are coyly identified: “Gallery House,” “Hong Kong Villa,” “An American Place,” etc. But with some, you can guess which millionaire’s house it is by looking at who lent the art for the exhibit. One side-effect of seeing all these photographs of Olson interiors: You realize what choice items by Hals, Hockney, Hopper and others are in private collections in the Seattle area.
In addition to the museum’s own Lightcatcher building, Olson’s public commissions include Seattle’s Gethsemane Lutheran Church (a true rectilinear light fest) and the spectacular Rose Window installation at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. Both are nicely represented with photos and architectural models in the show. Translucent vertical dividers, hanging like gossamer walls between installations, add a final felicitous element, making you feel as though you’re strolling through a luminous maze.
Two blocks away, at the museum’s Old City Hall branch, a selection of paintings from the museum’s permanent collection, titled “Romantically Modern: Pacific Northwest Landscapes,” is on display. Highlights include Michael Dailey’s semiabstract “Moonlight Landscape by the Sea #8”; the fractured photorealism of Karin Helmich’s “Tahoma”; and Carl Hall’s gouache, “Ritual Moon,” in which gnarled branches seem to catch and trap the lunar orb above them. The show — open noon-5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through June 9 — is well worth catching.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org