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Wednesday, December 5, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.
Harriet Sanderson crafts ‘Uneasy Landscapes’ | Art review
By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer
Balance is precarious in “Uneasy Landscapes,” a 25-year retrospective of work by Seattle artist Harriet Sanderson. Anatomy is scrambled, too, and spatial orientation can be uncertain.
Sanderson, who came out of the University of Washington’s MFA printmaking program in 1990, has good reason to be alert to the imbalances and uncertainties of the flesh. As curator Elizabeth Bryant explains in the exhibit catalog, Sanderson was suffering from “acute, undiagnosed, untreated post-polio syndrome” when at the UW, which made the physical side of art-making a challenge for her. (One video on display in “Uneasy Landscapes” makes it clear she has little or no strength in her right arm.)
Anderson addresses this bodily frailty from a number of angles, in a variety of media. And at its best, it’s a complexly layered meditation on the nature of the flesh in all its flaws and mortality.
The show is uneven, in part because Sanderson’s channels of expression — sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos and installations — are varied to the point of seeming scattershot at times. But the strongest works are fine indeed.
One of the earliest pieces in the show, “Uneasy Landscape 3,” is a hybrid drawing/painting of pale surfaces plunging into a crevasse or void. It could be a snowy landscape. It could also depict awkwardly arranged bedcovers slipping out of place.
Whichever it is, it has a slippery sense of vertigo about it.
Sanderson can take conceptual-art turns, too — most succinctly in “Blue Suede Shoes” (2009), where the shoes in question have had their heels replaced with curved cane handles. It’s as if Sanderson were saying, with a wry smile, “Try walking in these, and see what happens.”
Walking canes figure prominently in most of Sanderson’s installations, a few of which are on physical display in “Uneasy Landscapes,” while others are captured on video. The most striking video, “Tilt,” catches the essence of Sanderson as she struggles for 10 minutes to do the near-impossible by balancing the four legs of a chair on the curved handles of four upside-down walking canes. Her halting progress is painful to watch — but when she succeeds, it’s sublime.
Sanderson’s work with archival digital prints is just as impressive. Her scanned, manipulated and computer-drawn images don’t just confound your sense of what you’re seeing. (Sure, it’s skin — but from what part of the body?) They also, in some cases, break entirely out of picture-in-frame mode.
“Naked,” for instance, stitches six cutouts into an assemblage 16 feet long. The prints’ shapes conform only vaguely to the contours of human anatomy. Yet even if they’re manipulated beyond all recognition, these sights feel familiar and even embarrassingly intimate.
Her latest pieces mix digital scans of game books, the artist’s own skin and ink-drawings on a mattress pad, all reconstructed in Photoshop to mysterious effect. “Unraveling time” and “Biding time: playing the numbers” are particularly beguiling, with their richly textured layers. Result: Sanderson’s decades-long body-grammar explorations seem to be culminating in a heady cosmic reverie.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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