Mary Ann Peters: the edge becomes the center • Frye Art Museum • Seattle, Washington

Saturday, June 29, 2024 11:11 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

Approaching Mary Ann Peters’ provocative exhibit, the edge becomes the center, we first encounter “the impossible monument (gilded)” filling an entire wall. Screening set in a large gold frame obscures the interior, we only have a partial view of details as we move in front of the work. What we can decipher are keys, keyhole plates, and ribbons along with laminated survival blankets. Peters refers to the act of “glazing over groups who are domestically unmoored, covering their full stories with a patina of incomplete explanations, particularly in conflict zones. The telling of the experience is gilded, defusing responsibility.” She invokes home with her choice of material. As we gaze at the keys we think particularly of the Palestinians holding the keys to their homes after 75 years. But the key as an icon of a lost home can also be a universal symbol. 

Near the large “monument” hangs an empty oval frame invoking a lost ancestor. The absences in Peters’ work are as crucial as what we see, our inclination is to fill in the gaps with our own personal experiences. Her work reaches us by what we cannot see as much as the physical materials that we do see. 

The ten large abstract paintings collectively titled “this trembling turf” again suggest missing and hidden histories. As we look closely at these paintings, we dive into a mysterious world of suggested images that pulse and disappear. It feels like we are being tossed in a turbulent sea or churning earth.

They were inspired by Peters’ visit to the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut which houses 600,000 photographs, all archival images created since the turn of the twentieth century. The artist accidentally found photographs of unidentified mass graves lying underneath an upscale golf course.  As seen in the “impossible monument” work here and other earlier examples, the artist has long been interested in creating monuments to forgotten histories.

Each “trembling turf” has thousands of small and even tiny strokes, created with a white pigment pen on a black surface. Each painting has a distinct stroke, that builds into swelling shapes. The artist said that the titles of the work emerged from creating it, as for example, “the waters” or “the surge.”

Mary Ann Peters is a second-generation Lebanese American, who has focused for almost forty years on histories that are not told, of marginalized events, people, and places. Her work is particularly timely at this historical moment, as marginalized histories are being exposed in the Middle East and Ukraine, and decolonization of history is ever more prominent.

But these drawings are inspired by new archeological forensic techniques which give far more detail than the early photographs. On the other hand, the interpretation of these mass graves is also disputed, although prominent historians have confirmed them. We are not given information on a particular historical moment that led to this mass grave (there are certainly a lot of possibilities in Lebanon). The point for the artist is that this could be anywhere, really (think of the recently-discovered graves at Indian Boarding Schools using the same forensic technique). Her purpose is not to be specific, but to suggest that the acts of obliteration are worldwide. 


We can examine each of these works for a long time. The earliest, from 2016, with no subtitle, suggests the pulse of a heart monitor, with its thrusting verticals at its center. The waters give us no rest, as we feel deep beneath the heaving sea, moving in all directions, its swirls seeming to coalesce into an image, but then slip away. The work is suffocating, it suggests the sense of inescapable movement, the feeling of no base to stand on, much like people who migrate across water, many of whom drown. The surge is equally turbulent but provides an escape in a black sky above. Several others have a focal point that emerged as the artist works, as in “the oasis,” “the burst,” and particularly “the hollow” with its large black center.

The artist has not shown this entire series together before, many of them are owned by collectors or organizations like the Seattle Convention Center. The ten works interact and immerse us in a world of unknown parameters, which is exactly what people experience as they lose their homes, migrate, or whose stories are forgotten by history. 

Be sure to allow time to plunge into these swirling churning paintings.

Susan Noyes Platt 

Susan Noyes Platt writes for local, national, and international publications and her website is

“the edge becomes the center” is on view through January 5, 2025, at the Frye Art Museum, located at 704 Terry Avenue in Seattle, Washington. Hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For further information, visit

2023 © Art Access 
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software