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by Grant Mandarino
"Swallow Harder: Selections from the Collection of Ben and Aileen Krohn," Feb. 24-May 14, 2006 at the Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, Wa. 98104

Seattleites are used to taking modern and contemporary art in big gulps at the Seattle Art Museum. But since the museum closed for a major expansion project in January (it reopens in 2007), several smaller art institutions have stepped up to organize contemporary art shows that often -- though not often enough -- include local artists. "Swallow Harder," an exhibition of 44 works from Northwest collectors Ben and Aileen Krohn, currently showing at the Frye Art Museum, is a case in point. Viewers get a taste of current trends in contemporary art and find works by local heroes such as Leo Saul Berk, Claire Cowie, Scott Fife, Victoria Haven, Patrick Holderfield, Jeffry Mitchell, Matt Mumford and Alice Wheeler, mixed in with those of rising international artists like Amie Dickie, Chris Doyle, Anthony Goicolea, Matt Greene, Dean Sameshima and more.

Aside from its naughty title, "Swallow Harder" has created a lot of buzz around the city. It is the first time the Krohns, a young couple who have been collecting art since the late 1990s, have shown their collection publicly. The exhibition also points to the sharp shift in the Frye’s curatorial practice, which had for ages focused almost exclusively upon 19th- and early 20th-century representational art. When Robin Held joined the museum in 2005 as chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections (after leaving the cutting-edge Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus), she proposed to expand the scope of the institution by focusing on notions of representation in contemporary practice, an idea she claims "has little currency in the art world of our day." The approach establishes a new direction for the Frye while maintaining some kind of continuity with its existing identity. 

Just how adventurous Held’s definition of "representation" is, however, can be seen right at the start of the current show with Mark Mumford’s Swallow Harder, Swallow Harder (2002), four words reproduced in blue vinyl that are attached to the wall of the very first gallery, one atop the next. Mumford has been experimenting with ambiguous phrases like this for a few years now, sometimes reproducing them directly onto gallery walls, other times on placards that he then photographs. Obviously, Held chose Mumford to spearhead the show for exactly the kind of open-ended associations his language games involve: The pornographic connotations evoked by this particular phrase brilliantly hint at the edgy themes that pervade many of the pieces in this strikingly contemporary collection of work, linking the whole affair together.

On the other hand, thought-provoking works by local artists Victoria Haven and Leo Saul Berk stand out in the crowd of images looking to titillate. Haven -- who was born and works in Seattle, but trained at the London’s Goldsmiths College, one-time training ground for the Young British Artists -- has, over the last couple of years become a local art star. She creates delicate paper cutouts of mountainous landscapes that she either mounts or pins directly to the wall. Twin Peaks (2004) is a smaller (25 x 35 in.) version of some of her other, more ambitious cut-out pieces, but it squeezes maximal effect out of the fragility of her material. The distinctive effect of her work comes from the way Haven shrinks the monumentality of the subject matter to a wispy form.

Berk -- who, like Haven, is represented by Seattle’s fine Howard House gallery -- employs a process that is the exact reverse. His Hogbacks Back to Back (2002) is a sculptural relief made out of medium-density fiberboard and lacquer, modeled after the grain in a small sample of wood. By increasing the scale of the grain to that used by architects for topographical models (the finished diptych, composed of two long, narrow horizontal panels, is 13 x 48 x 4 in.), Berk creates a kind of imaginary landscape that he then builds up, sculpting hills and valleys out of what once simply represented the natural growth lines of the wood. Moving from micro to macro, Berk creatively expands the limits of human perception by enlarging mere "things" into "places" -- a clever riff on how our sense of space is only an effect of scale.

There are many other works that make the Frye show worth mentioning: You Are So Lucky (2003), a picture of a model, taken from a magazine and then whittled down to a black spider web of outlines, by Amie Dicke; a wonderfully dense multi-media print, Twister (2004), by Nicola López, featuring a natural disaster spun out of swirling satellites and skyscrapers; Peter Rostovsky’s paean to ‘80s hair metal, Nikki Sixx (2001), a crisp portrait of the Motley Crue bassist in all his made-up glory; Matt Greene’s Lair of the Hessians (2003), a watery, painted nightmare with knights and rockers mingling around a giant tree (the blurry image could easily pass for a Black Sabbath album cover); and two videos, Pills and Cigs (2004) and Freebird (2002) by Assume Vivid Astro Focus (a.k.a Eli Sudbrack), whose super day-glo psychedelia seems to be everywhere these days.

Given the title of the show, it seems doubly necessary to mention Jason Salavon’s 76 Blowjobs (1998), a fuzzy digital composite of 76 images of fellatio that closes the exhibition, fulfilling the promise that opened it.

For an institution like the Frye, "Swallow Harder" is a major event, an indication that the museum is willing to push ahead with its exploration of contemporary themes and does not fear showcasing the seedier side of representational art. For Seattle, "Swallow Harder" debuts the strength of a significant local collection that includes many of the city’s finest emerging talents.

A work like Genderfuck Kurt (2002) by veteran grunge photographer Alice Wheeler, featuring a person with a painted-on beard and a shirt with an enormous, solemn Kurt Cobain face, tweaks the past even as it offers just enough to remind any Seattleite of where we’ve been. Luckily for us, the rest of the artists in the exhibition show us where we are going.

GRANT MANDARINO writes on art from Seattle.