Last week, a new contemporary art gallery opened in Tacoma, bringing the total of contemporary galleries, and really, the total of notable walk-in galleries outside of museums, to two (the good non-walk-in spaces are Tollbooth Gallery, a video-and-paperworks kiosk on the street; and Tacoma Contemporary’s Woolworth Windows). The newest spot is Critical Line at 741 St Helens, run by the guys who invented Tollbooth about two years ago. The other gallery, which opened less than a year ago, is Icebox Contemporary Art at 301A Puyallup Ave, run by curator Tracey Fugami and artist Eugene Parnell.
New ventures in Tacoma always spawn conversations about whether Tacoma finally has its own scene, whether it has reached a safety point in becoming a place where contemporary art and artists will not be evicted one day. (Hannah Levin explores a concurrent conversation about South Sound music in this week’s Stranger.)
No doubt Tacoma has become a nicer place to have dinner and walk around. And despite its gentrification and rising housing prices in many parts, it remains a friendlier place to pay your rent than Seattle, and the best place in the Puget Sound besides Seattle for an urban environment bounded by history and landscape.
What never seems to change about Tacoma are two factors: the persistent old notion that contemporary art is a fraud (after the opening of Critical Line’s Found Space show, an *artist* living in Tacoma sent me an email that seemed to doubt that the show’s photography, painting, and video should even be called art: “If this is ‘contemporary’ art,” the artist wrote, “how would it be described as such?”), and the threat of turnover, since, as in any smaller city, contemporary art rests on the fatiguing shoulders of a very few. (I should add that the artist’s email was asking for my opinion and clarification on the show, and may not have been intended as a slight—but it was hard not to see it that way.)
Don’t get me wrong: right now, more than ever, it is worth going to Tacoma to see some art. On Saturday, Tacoma Art Museum is opening a show of Roy Lichtenstein prints and paintings based on the unsung inspiration the Pop artist found in Native American art. (I haven’t seen it yet, but this could give the Henry Lichtenstein show a run for its money in the category of freshness.) Then, on May 20, TAM opens its exhibition devoted to the Neddy Fellowship nominees and winners for this year: Brian Murphy, Jaq Chartier, David C. Kane, and Barbara Earl Thomas for painting; Barbara Robertson, Dawn Cerny, and Blake Haygood for printmaking. This promises a great contemporary show (and again, one that naturally invites comparison to a Seattle museum: the contemporary show now up at SAAM in Volunteer Park is diffuse and small, but well-chosen).
On the gallery side, Icebox has an installation-based show by Justin Hahn opening May 16, called Essential Vesicles. (vesâ€˘icâ€˘le 1a: a membranous and usu. fluid-filled pouch in a plant or animal, Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Tenth Edition)
Here’s the gallery’s description of the show:
The artist will strategically place massive quantities of post-industrial polymeric material throughout the gallery. The space will be transformed into a massive installation of vesicle—like forms, color, and textures.
And here’s an image:
At Critical Line, an airy place where the floor is made of vivid, glossy manufactured wood marked with factory text, Jared Pappas-Kelley and Michael Lent have curated a group show.
Kevin Haas makes color-stained photographic images seen through the lens of fences. I particularly like Ann Kendellen’s (see below) crackling black-and-white photographs of built structures (as in Steve Carlton’s excellent recent show at Olivodoce—at which I found out, by the way, that he’s moving to Chicago for his darned girlfriend, so sad). Matthew Keeney dressed up in a white suit and squeezed into small spaces in his absurdist performance photos. E.J. Herczyk contributed quiet, painted-on photographs that signal science through abstraction (I think—I didn’t get to look at them for as long as I’d have liked; I can’t find good images of these online to show you), and there’s a white-on-white video of polar bears by Ido Fluk. The video was hard to see because the room wasn’t dark enough; this is something the gallery directors are working on, I’m told.
Those Kendellens I promised:
To sum up: Yes, you should go to Tacoma, not because it is some new and improved version of itself, but because the contemporary art people there work harder than they should have to, and they deserve your support.