Daring Frye exhibit makes reverence out of the mundane

Seattle Photographer Isaac Layman holed up at home with his family to find Paradise. Now it's on display at the Frye.

Crosscut archive image.

Isaac Layman. Untitled, 2011. Photographic construction, ink-jet on paper. 59 x 78 in.

Seattle Photographer Isaac Layman holed up at home with his family to find Paradise. Now it's on display at the Frye.

Some of the walls in the Frye Museum are empty right now. Some of the frames in the show of Isaac Layman’s “Paradise” look like they are empty too. But don’t be fooled: there’s a lot going on in this exhibit.

Layman’s vast digital prints tempt a visitor to label them “minimal,” but in fact, they are only reticent; patience reveals subtle detail and activity on several scales. At first glance, some prints suggest monochrome waterfalls or mountains; others resemble the industrial minimalism of Donald Judd and Walter de Maria. On second or third glance, the viewer realizes that these are extremely large-scale representations of quotidian objects, from radiator vents to used tissues to the lid from a rice cooker.

Layman repeatedly photographed objects in his home, digitally combining those photos into high resolution images printed at up to five by seven feet. An eerily consistent depth of focus and texture hint that these are not your ordinary photos, but Layman’s finessed technique does not give up the secret of his process. Other pieces seem to be simply empty frames around dirty glass; these are, in fact, the windows of his Wallingford home re-installed for your inspection.

One of the most remarkable features of the show is the lack of labels. After taking in the puzzling work for a few minutes, I naturally stepped forward to the wall, looking for the explanatory note that clarifies "what it is." But I couldn’t find the answer, because none is offered. Instead, Layman required that I wrestle with my perceptions on my own. How frustrating! And how rewarding.

During a conversation at the exhibit's opening, museum Director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker questioned Layman about this, asking him, "Why aren't there any labels?" He responded by comparing the experience to his own first encounter with his newborn child: For just a few minutes, he and his wife didn't know the sex of the child and simply enjoyed the infant being without putting him/her into any categories. Layman hopes viewers will allow themselves such an unmediated encounter with each work. The omission of labels, according to Layman, means that there are “no limits” for him or for others.

Though without labels, the exhibit is accompanied by a catalog which is a work of art itself, developed in collaboration with local poet and novelist, Doug Nufer. Nufer, a formalist, gained recognition for his novel Never Again, which doesn't repeat one word, and Negativeland, in which every sentence contains a negative. In an email, Nufer explained that Danzker contacted him and gave him free reign to write about Layman or the show. Nufer said he thought it “would be a 'simple' matter of going to his studio, seeing the pieces, taking notes, and then figuring out some constraint that would materially address his work.”

Instead, he found Layman in-progress, still producing work. Nufer himself was surprised by the difference between the digital images he saw in Layman’s studio and the final, large scale prints in the show. In the catalog, he imposed two constraints on his writing: It would involve multiple sets of parentheses (within a line (like this)) and “rising or falling word letter-count.” That is, each successive word in a sentence would have more letters, until the next sentence, when each would have fewer letters. He suggests that the catalog be read from the outside in: “For each paragraph, read the part of the sentence that is outside the parentheses. Then, read the phrase that is enclosed by one bracket, then the phrase enclosed by two brackets, and so on,” he suggests.

Both Layman and Nufer live and work in Seattle, and thus, this exhibit takes on the special role of promoting two uniquely Pacific Northwestern artists. Danzker gave a personal account of collaborating with Layman to produce the show, explaining how he secluded himself in his house with his family, where he committed himself to seeking paradise in the here and now.

Rather than escape this world for another, Layman tried to fully experience his environment, even if that meant pulling his sick children’s tissues out of a trashcan at two a.m. to photograph them. He claimed to present a “self-portrait” of his perception of the objects, rather than just representations of the things themselves. (The resulting image, by the way, resembles a heavenly chaos of clouds, not piles of dirty Kleenex.) 

This is one of the most well-executed shows I have seen recently in Seattle, both at an artistic and a curatorial level. Layman saw to completion what many artists speak of, but do not accomplish: the re-presentation of quotidian objects in a way that befuddles and then engages the viewer. Danzker dared to take on this young artist for a solo show. She understood the need to leave vast sections of the museum’s wall space untouched: The pieces each earned an entire wall of the large exhibit space. Some walls were even left entirely blank, adding to the overall sparse atmosphere.

This exhibit, like others in the last few years, pushes the boundaries of the Frye’s audience and patrons, educating them through exposure to cutting-edge and difficult work, as well as the canonical pieces in the permanent collection.

If you go: Isaac Layton — Paradise at the Frye Art Museum, through January 22nd. Closed Mondays, free admission.


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