With more than 70 cubicle rooms of art from all over the world (including 20 from Washington), it’s hard to know where to begin. But in the opening hours of the event last night — a hot and sunny summer evening — we bravely donned our arts reporter caps and dove in.
At 5 p.m., we hit the fair running, splitting up and spreading out across the aisles to cover as much of the 87,000 square feet as possible. Here’s what we heard, saw and, yes, smelled during the first night of the Fair.
Brangien Davis: After getting through the entry line and the vaccination check, stepping into the fair is immediately overwhelming. There is so much to see at Seattle Art Fair, and so many possible ways to see it. I bumped into two friends with vying approaches — “I start on the outside, then go row by row,” one said. “I think it’s better to go all left side, then all right side,” the other responded. I don’t know whose approach won. But I think Preston Singletary’s “Killer Whale Totem” is well-placed at the entrance — the tall, amber cast-glass sculpture is grounding (and gorgeous).
Margo Vansynghel: My approach to art fairs can be called “meandering” at best. I opt to kick things off at the first local booth near the entrance, courtesy of longtime local gallery Greg Kucera. As I circle the booth, I spot the first red dot — indicating an artwork has sold — on the label near a 2021 artwork by local artist Humaira Abid, titled “Tempting Eyes XIV.” Made from carved and stained pinewood, the sculpture takes the shape of a rearview mirror. In it, a veiled woman’s blue eyes stare right back. It is 5:30 p.m., just half an hour into the “Collector’s Preview” portion of the evening — that’s a swift sale. Gallery co-owner Jim Wilcox, who purchased the gallery with his wife in early 2021, tells me the collector is from New York.
BD: My tactic for managing the overwhelm is to invent a theme and see if it plays out. I spot “Transcendence” (1945), a favorite painting of a small and cranky bird by Northwest School artist Morris Graves in the Woodside/Braseth booth (one of the few showing older works). “Animals!” I decide, and feel instantly soothed.
MVS: As I make my way through the first aisle of booths, my eyes darting between the art on either side like pinballs, I stop. This sparkly wall on the outside of Shift Gallery’s booth seems to be made of diamonds — it twinkles and glints. Like a crow, I cannot control my attraction. As I get closer, I notice the shiny abstract pyramids are actually face masks made from polyester film. It’s the kind of film you put on your windows to reflect the light away, the Bellevue-based artist, Sung I Chun, says. Which means that these masks are either reflective or see-through, depending on how the light hits them. A single mask costs $202 — but as a few people posing in front of the wall prove, this works best as a giant photo background.
Also glimmering enticingly: Katy Stone’s “Light Current (Orbit),” a giant wall installation of shiny, copper-tinted sequins at local gallery J. Rinehart.
BD: Not exactly sparkling but shimmering is “Messier 87” (2022), the dark pool of water created by Portland artist Peter Gronquist. After hearing several people call it their favorite installation here, I head to the southeast corner to check it out. It delivers. The round pool is surrounded by Oregon river rocks and appears to go deep, while “sonic transducers” create a subwoofer effect that jars the water’s surface in an unsettling, earthquakey fashion.
MVS: OK, but what I want is earth-shaking fashion! And I haven’t seen many memorable outfits yet.
BD: Maybe I’m wearing rose-embellished glasses, but I recall more bold fashion choices at Seattle Art Fairs past. It’s been one of the few Seattle occasions where people let loose and get sartorially creative. But perhaps the pandemic soft-pant-ening has had a more lasting effect on style.
MVS: I wish someone were wearing pink glasses! Overall, I think the fashion is pretty on par with previous years, which is to say: a mix of Northwest understated chic (horizontal blue stripes, flats) and some more bold choices (including a few bright patterns Seattleites don’t usually opt for). I was hoping to get some shoe inspiration this year, but as I look down in search of outrageous heels, I encounter mostly sensible footwear. The coolest thing I spot is a sizable Steve Buscemi tattoo on the back of someone’s calf.
BD: Several people have donned long, flowing, boldly patterned robe layers for the occasion, which I appreciate. And one man is wearing a fabulous embroidered vintage suit. But yes, we could do better here, Seattle.
MVS: Deeper into the maze, I see a few people who have perfected the art of marrying style with comfort: two men, lounging in a giant “Motel 6” sign sculpture — a tall box the length of a coffin. Presented by Kurimanzutto Gallery, the Mexican artist Miguel Calderón plans to live in the sculpture for the duration of the fair, eating and drinking whatever he finds at the fair. (Which reminds me: I didn’t bring any snacks.)
Currently, he’s sipping from a glass of champagne. The second man reclines deeper into the box on a sleeping bag, scrolling his phone. “Are you … Nato Thompson?” I ask a little incredulously. Thompson is the artistic director of this art fair. But decidedly not schmoozing with the art crowd, he is choosing instead to sit in a closed-off, small space. “This is a great place to enjoy the fair,” he says, smiling. “In here, not seeing any other art?” I ask. “I’ve been here all day,” he quips. “I’ve seen it.”
BD: “There are a lot of rabbits here,” I hear a young woman say at the south end of the aisles. She is standing in front of a large painting of a sheep. I get excited that my made-up “animals” theme is becoming real. The piece is one of several serene sheep portraits by former shepherdess and current Northwest artist Claudia Pettis. These oil paintings on Belgian linen, including “Flock on a Cloud Blue Day,” are hanging in Whidbey Island-based Museo Gallery’s booth. Also worth a look here: Michael Dickter’s “Heron Cluster Flock,” featuring birds of a feather in a beaky bouquet. “People keep calling me ‘the cluster flock guy,’” Dickter tells me. “It takes a little getting used to.”
MVS: At the Seattle NFT Museum’s booth, things get a little more… abstract. Two women seem puzzled — and I am too. Why the heck are they showing actual (as in: physical) framed paintings? “We printed out one of the NFTs,” a helpful volunteer explains. One of the women does not seem to think this is, in any way, an answer to our question. “Is the original art done on a computer?” she asks. (Yes.) “How do you now have the original? Is it saved on a computer?” (No, on the blockchain.) “Part of it is to show there is a digital and physical component. It isn’t just always on a screen,” the attendant bravely persists. “A lot of times they show better printed.”
But how do you print? the woman presses. “Right click. Save. Ctrl + P,” the attendant deadpans.
MVS: As I make my way further through the fair, I’m not seeing a sea of red dots. At 7:30 p.m., I decide to take a different approach: Ask. At Traver Gallery, a staffer tells me a Marita Dingus sculpture (priced somewhere between $12,000 and $14,000) had been sold to a private collector. Though the deal has been inked, it is not yet red-dot official.
BD: Dingus isn’t the only Seattle artist selling work right out of the gate: Just before 8 p.m., at Portland’s PDX Contemporary Art, I spot red dots on the labels belonging to two recent, abstract acrylic-on-linen paintings by longtime Seattle artist Victoria Haven. Chekhov Moon and Trail Marker II (Hozomeen) sold for $5,000 and $2,300, respectively.
MVS: I notice another red dot at Harris/Harvey Gallery, an oil painting by Bay Area artist Hiroshi Sato titled “Noticed Inside.” Somewhere in between an Edward Hopper and a cubist painting, the scene of a woman reclining on a bed sold for $7,800 to a private local collector, a former gallery client. “We had not seen them in a couple of years,” gallery director Sarah Harvey says. “We got reconnected at the fair.”
BD: Connecting with people at the art fair is best achieved through a combination of GPS and conjuring. Every several booths or so, I see someone standing in the middle of an aisle on their phone, saying things like, “No, I’m at B13. I am not moving. Come find me.” My own phone is a string of text messages reading, “At D01. Now E09. Oops, now C07.”
Soon I experience another familiar feeling from past Seattle Art Fairs — bumping into people who say, “You’ve got to see the piece around the corner.” I ask them where, exactly, and they curve their arm and point and emphasize, “It’s right around that corner!” I never find it.
MVS: But the beauty of a fair is finding something you were not looking for. Case in point: the small artworks hung in a corner of Hashimoto Contemporary, a gallery with outposts in San Francisco, New York and L.A. “OMG,” a woman tells her friend, “they’re, like, barbecuing … a torso.” She’s pointing to a small hanging hemisphere filled with a miniature all-American scene. Behind the tiny fence, near the perfect house and the perfectly cut grass, I spot teeny, almost nail-sized humans, grilling, rotisserie-style, a severed and bloody torso.
These “die-o-ramas” are by Bellingham artist Abigail Goldman, a criminal investigator at the public defender’s office. Goldman’s work is a hit of the night, with five globes already sold. “Her stuff usually goes quickly,” someone from the gallery tells me. The two women are having a blast matching the gory scenes with their titles. One work features a bloody tableau at the dentist. It’s called “The Bill Hurt More.”
BD: Sometimes we see art that depicts pain, sometimes seeing art elicits pain. Just after 8 p.m., on the walk down Occidental Avenue South toward the satellite exhibit Forest for the Trees, I realize I’ve broken one of my cardinal art fair rules: wear comfortable shoes. I feel the first bite of a blister forming on my left foot. Ahead, we can see art revelers on the roof deck of the RailSpur building … where after exploring seven floors of art, my blister will be in full bloom.
MVS: Moving over to Forest for the Trees, the fair’s younger, hipper sister, we pair back up and traverse the floors together. This is definitely a DIY affair — on some floors, the space is raw, the attire is shorts and tanks, and the feeling is “let’s all pitch in and make art happen.”
BD: In contrast to the corporate slickness of the Seattle Art Fair, some of the floors here definitely feel more sparse and thrown together. And we learn quickly that each floor gets successively hotter as you move up the building. Maybe it’s that more people and art are packed onto the higher floors, maybe it’s thermodynamics.
MVS: Something that’s definitely less hot than it was a year ago: the NFT market. But at Forest for the Trees, there are still some NFTs to be mined (disproving the “NFTs ARE DEAD” T-shirt someone is sporting on the first floor). On the second floor, I immediately recognize the “vaporwave” style of local and longtime digital artist Neon Saltwater. You can view the short, looping video projection from plush seats installed for the occasion. Titled “Rainstripe Room at the Neon Saltwater Hotel” (the NFT platform Foundation tells me after I scan a QR code), the work takes us into a cow-printed, Memphis-style hotel room that is at once playful and menacing. (It’s on the market for 2.5 ETH, currently roughly $4,000).
MVS: On the sweltering fifth floor, which hosts the feminist, pro-abortion exhibit Howl, we’re greeted by golden helium balloons and … a VW Beetle-sized uterus. The large sculpture by local artist Fumi Amano is made out of crimson-red playground climbing netting, and visitors are encouraged to “interact with the artwork.” Boy do they. As one person enters the sculpture through the vagina, climbs up into the uterus and heads for the fallopian tubes, they exclaim: “This should be in every play place in America!”
BD: Upstairs, walking into the seventh floor exhibit feels like walking into an art rave. The DJ is playing throbbing music and people are yelling to converse. The wildly diverse works here are part of a collaborative effort called XO Seattle, and include painting, sculpture, textiles and an airy roof deck installation with mushroom neon shapes sprouting up through the landscaping, their caps echoing the pyramidal top of the Smith Tower.
Looking south toward the official art fair, I get a sudden strong waft of cotton candy. Either someone has purchased some from a street vendor, or it’s coming from the large, lumpy, pink, sugar mountain by local artist Rachael Comer. Just then, I receive a text from an apparently ravenous Margo: “Will have to start eating this sugar sculpture soon.”
MVS: Around 9:30 p.m. I tell myself I can keep going just a little longer. Up a wide wooden staircase, on the smaller of the eighth-floor roof decks, a few neon and argon portals — slender outlines, like glowing door frames or enticing thresholds — by local artist Kelsey Fernkopf provide a vibey backdrop for the gathered crowd. On the roof, as the sun is setting, people move their phone cameras away from the artwork and its “Matrix”-like green glow toward the deep orange and purple behind the skyline, proving that, however amazing the art, there truly is no backdrop as beautiful as Seattle itself.
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