• Thursday, March 01, 2018 12:47 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    The genre of portraiture doesn’t get a lot of love these days. Come to think of it, it never really has.

    In the Royal Academy—the post-Renaissance prototype for today’s art schools and museums where the best of the best European artists trained—portraiture was second on the hierarchy of genres. Any artist who wanted to paint “important” works in the academy was producing History Paintings, depicting mythological or religious subjects to
    convey some kind of higher ideal or moral value. Portraiture was important —it sat above landscape painting and still lifes on that academy list—but it wasn’t number one. In general, Western portrait painters were respected for their technical skill and ability to produce a
    recognizable likeness of a person, but not so much for their ideas or creativity.

    And so it has been for the last several centuries. Portrait painters have rarely made a splash or even a ripple in the trajectory of art history—can you name any portraitists off the top of your head? Recently, however, portraiture has made a comeback. Barack and Michelle Obama’s presidential portraits were unveiled recently, throwing a wrench in the historically conservative and— I’ll say it—downright boring collection of the last 200 years of presidential portraits. Kehinde Wiley’s depiction of Barack in a lush garden of green leaves and pops of colorful flowers and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle in a bold patterned dress against a bright blue background have been a breath of fresh air. How refreshing to see portraits that buck conventions, toss off the unspoken requirement of literalism, and attempt to say something about the personalities of these important people. Portraiture is back.

    Just take the current show at Foster/White Gallery, aptly titled “Portraiture.” The show brings together three painters whose work expands and questions the nature of portraiture as a genre. Erin Armstrong, Carlos Donjuan, and Julia Lambright prod and push at the boundaries of portraiture—somewhere in the middle of my time with the paintings, I found myself asking, what makes a portrait a portrait? Just as Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald offered a courageous new answer to this question with their Obama portraits, the artists in “Portraiture” proffer up three similarly bold responses.

    California-based painter Erin Armstrong tests the parameters of portraiture with
    a body of work where the visual identity of her sitters is all but obscured. Bright splashes of color and bold floral patterns surround and define her subjects, sometimes encroaching on, but never overshadowing, the human forms she depicts. It’s the form, the container that stays in tact—the context and the contents transmute. Boundaries are strongly defined, but what lies within or just without that edge is amorphous.

    For Armstrong, the frontier of identity is anything but settled. It’s wild and blooming, neon lights and floral wallpaper, bright and budding and just a little bit cheeky.

    Armstrong’s figures embody an identity or a character, but the defining physical features are concealed or abstracted. One subject covers her face with a bouquet of bright blue tulips. Another has an orange stripe for an eyebrow and a head composed of turquoise, yellow and purple stripes. The face—the place we often look first to locate identity—is the focus, but there are no distinguishing features to be found in Armstrong’s portraits. Instead, we are left with a container, a form filled with a sensation or a color or a bouquet of bright blue tulips.

    Smaller in scale but richer in symbolism are the delightfully ambiguous paintings of Carlos Donjuan. Based in Dallas, Texas, Donjuan works from his personal history as a first generation American to address notions of belonging. Fascinated from a young age with the concept of alien identity, Donjuan’s portraits toe the line between standard and strange. Here, portraiture addresses the place of the person in the land of the collective. While Armstrong locates identity within a vessel of ever-evolving sensations, Donjuan finds it in the act of assemblage. In Donjuan’s paintings, delicately rendered strands of hair are tucked behind a mask of geometric patterns and leopard print. Human faces are abstracted to triangles and circles, which then become the composite parts of the chorus of friendly creatures populating his works. Identity for Donjuan is a kit of parts that can be endlessly reconfigured and mixed and matched. We all wear masks, he seems to say. Some are friendly, some are funny and some are foreign. They all speak to the impossibility—the absurdity—of ever truly blending in.

    The third artist in the exhibit, Julia Lambright, dives even deeper into the layered facets of identity in the genre of portraiture. Born and raised in Russia, Lambright works in a traditional egg-tempera painting technique which she learned from masters in Russia and the United States. A notoriously unforgiving medium, egg-tempera is a technique ripe with historical associations. Lambright describes her work as “excavating the strata of the past,” building up layers of symbols and textures to compose the iconic figures who populate her paintings. For her, identity is about history—it can be built up and unearthed through the layers of time.

    Their methods and influences are quite different, but all three artists in “Portraiture” bring similar questions to the table: where do we locate individual identity? And how does the body in concert with its context work to convey this sense of self? At a moment in history when identity—whether gender, racial or national—holds more political relevance than ever, it seems fitting that artists are using the genre of portraiture to play with these definitions. Because, the truth is, portraitists have always used their medium to communicate carefully orchestrated messages about
    their sitters. They just haven’t always been quite so honest about it.

    Lauren Gallow
    Lauren Gallow is an arts writer, critic, and editor. You can read more of her work at

    “Portraits” is on view through March 24 at Foster/White Gallery, located at 220 Third Avenue South. The gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. For further information call (206) 622-2833 or visit

  • Thursday, March 01, 2018 12:35 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Thursday, March 01, 2018 12:32 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    That’s Just Ken

    My friend Ken and I are on our second loop around Green Lake. It’s sunset, “the hour of truth,” Ken says.

    And I can tell when his truth is not so much about to surface but burst. This generally means I’m about to get a history lesson. What’s lovely is that I can practically see Ken’s wheels turning backward in time and that he’s a little surprised by how good remembering makes him feel.

    And that’s good enough to make me feel good, too.

    On election day, 2016, we walked along Waterfront Park. “I should write a song about this day,” he said. “A sad tune about misery and shortsightedness because that’s what it feels like to turn on the TV.” We laughed. Harder than we would have if anything was actually funny.

    Today, Ken’s lesson is about Thanksgiving. I never knew it was an English harvest celebration held the first week in October. Or that the reason why ours is on the third Thursday in November is that the U. S. Congress, in 1941, passed an act saying so. Seems the federal workers, “who live for holidays,” pointed out that October had Halloween; December had Christmas; January had New Year’s. Something had to be done about November. And the third Thursday sounded so…right. Congress agreed.“Well, why wouldn’t they?” Ken says.

    Next, we talk about friendships past. “It’s good to reflect before charging ahead into the new,” Ken says, thinking more about tax policy, I’m sure. But he can’t help himself.

    But what rushes into my mind is an old friend who-broke-my-heart. “She certainly taught me that it’s possible to keep someone close while letting them go,” I say.

    Ken calls this kind of attachment an emotional deep state. “When habits rule, not our brains.” But he would think of love like this, wouldn’t he? So I remind him that I’d recently spoke at my first national conference and he hadn’t even asked me about it yet. “Some friend,” I say.

    “You’re brave,” is all he says.

    “Brave? No way. If you knew what I looked like in the greenroom, I doubt you’d think I’m brave. I picked every piece of fuzz off the floor. And it’s weird because I’ve chosen performance anxiety since I was five when I’d stage puppet shows for the neighborhood.”

    “You just knew you wanted to run your own show,” Ken says, “and earn your own pennies.”

    “Sadly, that’s the part that has stayed the same, pennies for pay.”

    We talk about cold remedies. This exchange went something like: I say my Chinese friend gives me herbs that smell terrible, and he says his sister calls chicken soup nature’s antibiotic, and I say my Filipino neighbor, Marlin, swears by slow cooked beef tongue.

    “Ew,” I said.

    “No, ew!,” she yelled. “Just do!”

    I love Marlin. What I know about the kind of friendship we share — how it isn’t all that easy to just do it sometimes, but do it we must — I learned from her.

    “Now that kind of attachment is a good medicine and a good example of bipartisanship.”

    I spent the next couple of minutes thinking, this is Seattle, this is Ken, this is how Ken’s mind works.

    Ken saves the world. For me, at least.

    Mary Lou Sanelli
    Sanelli’s latest book is A Woman Writing. She is speaking at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington on April 14th, at the Seaport Bookstore in La Conner, Washington on May 10th, and at the General  Federation of Women’s Clubs International Convention held June 22-26 in St. Louis, Missouri. For more information, visit

  • Sunday, January 07, 2018 11:48 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    November 18, 1883 was called “the day of two noons.” It was the day that standardized time was instituted. At exactly noon on this day, four continental time zones were established in North America. It was called “the day of two noons” because at mid-day, people had to stop what they were doing and reset their clocks back to noon in order to get everyone on the same page of time.

    The new exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery­—“The Time. The Place.”­—features over fifty artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which seek to disrupt this sense of a standardized, linear time. Here, time is presented as layered and cyclical rather than a straight, organized line. Historical markers are nevertheless present in this survey. Artworks mark distinct moments in the history of the 20th century, including the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the emergence of modernist design mid-century. However, there is a push and pull between these two conceptions of time, fixed versus fluid.

    Many artists in the show seek to bend time and turn it in on itself, denying its omnipresence, its oppressive consistency. And yet, at the same time (see—even I can’t escape it), the exhibit itself seems to insist on a standard marking of time. “In celebration of the Henry’s ninetieth anniversary”—every piece of didactic material about the exhibit uses this as the justification for mounting such a show at the Henry, and points out that the majority of the works have been acquired by the museum in the last twenty years. Wandering through the galleries, though, this clean-cut sense of a linear, divisible time all but dissolves.

    The opening piece in the main galleries is “Ibi Sum.” What appears to be a clock is lying flat on a pedestal in the middle of the room. Except, this clock has only a single hand and no numbers. And it doesn’t seem to be ticking. In fact, it’s not a clock at all. It’s a compass. This compass is programmed to point to artist Kris Martin wherever he is, based on a geotracker Martin carries with him at all times. Even after death, the compass will continue to point to Martin’s grave. Transcending physical presence, transcending time, the compass will forever point. For Martin, time is a trick, a disguise. Time will pass, it will end eventually. But, the compass clock will continue its work, diligently pointing.

    For me, the measure of a successful artwork is when time stands still while I’m experiencing it. These are the works where I can lose myself and forget that forward march of seconds, minutes, hours. Several pieces in the show conjured this experience for me, the most successful being the video works. What a thrill to discover that the Henry has in its collection videos by Bill Viola and Gary Hill, among others. I watched Bill Viola’s “Anthem” video piece with rapt attention, searching for any hint or trace of Seattle, wondering how this piece in particular came to end up at the Henry. What was the connection? How did it land here, in this time and this place, to be the opening work in the Henry show? Of course the answer was not there, in Viola’s clips of industry and commerce interspersed with the slow-motion scream of a young girl. The only answer being what Viola has always insisted—that human vulnerability stands outside of time or notions of its progression.

    But where I really lost myself was in the second video room, a piece by Svetlana and Igor Kopystiansky titled “Speak When I Have Nothing To Say, After L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) by Michelangelo Antonioni.” The video is an edited scene from Antonioni’s film “L’Eclisse” where the artists have removed the dialogue and rearranged the shots so that any attempts to follow a linear narrative are thwarted. What starts off as confusing quickly becomes meditative and almost hypnotic, the sound of heels clicking back and forth on tile floor and a table fan lazily buzzing a soothing backdrop to the characters moving wordlessly across the screen. Here, time is a circle, there is no beginning and no end. There are no satisfying placeholders or landmarks to latch onto—only the silent despair of two characters who circle around one another, looping and repeating until they just can’t anymore.

    This sense of a repeating loop, where time is more malleable than fixed, is a comforting cloak that drapes over the exhibition. It circles and doubles, as in Richard Long’s “Puget Sound Driftwood Circle” (driftwood arranged in an almost perfect circle) or Angela Christlieb and Eve Sussman’s “How to tell the future from the past, v. 2”, where video of forward and backward movement is seen side by side. 

    It is comforting, this conception of time, because it removes the promise and the pressure of progress. It reminds us that nothing in life follows a single line. Seasons cycle around and around, lessons take practice and more practice to learn, change happens in fits and starts and never all at once. Sometimes going backwards is necessary to go forwards, and sometimes the day holds two noons. A heartening reminder at this time, this place in history where so many things feel positively upside down. 

    Lauren Gallow

    Lauren Gallow is an arts writer, critic, and editor. You can read more of her work at

    “The Time. The Place. Contemporary Art from the Collection” is on view at the Henry Art Gallery, located at 15th Avenue NE and NE 41st Street in Seattle, Washington. The lower level galleries close on March 25. The upper level galleries remain open until April 22. Hours are Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M. and Thursday from 11 A.M. to 9 P.M. Visit for more information.

  • Sunday, January 07, 2018 11:45 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Sunday, January 07, 2018 11:40 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    In the New Year

    Be patient, and trust

    that in Spring the sap will rise again,

    and once replenishment begins,

    this thick skin that you’ve cultivated

    to protect you from the storms

    will no longer be enough

    to contain the hope that grows in you,

    and will begin to peel away.

    That slow excruciating tearing

    redeems itself

    by carrying away the scars

    of old cuts you once endured;

    will leave you fragile, vulnerable, glowing;

    overflowing with new life.

    Each stage has its discomfort:

    the constraints and constrictions of winter

    give way to the defenselessness of spring.

    Soon you’ll begin again to dread

    the painful severing of autumn —

    even summer aches with anticipation.

    Diane Walker

    Diane Walker is a poet, artist, and actress living in the Northwest.

    To view her work, visit

  • Sunday, January 07, 2018 11:39 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    What if God

    What if God were the everything

    not mere perfection also imperfection 

    not just the broadcaster of trees

    but where the seeds land find a way

    underground aloft a place to stand

    a leaning a decay in time a falling

    not just the wind that rises at dark 

    that sets them waving at nothing 

    but the squeak of the porch swing

    made of oak something not nothing

    that’s held its place a long time 

    how it sings putting up with a body 

    hears the knot in the knotty pine sighing

    through the night through the rain

    out from the heart of the grove 

    that deep-down ache its lost limb

    Paul Hunter

    Paul Hunter is a Seattle poet whose latest book is “Clownery,”  in lieu of a life spent in harness (Davila Art & Books, 2017), an autobiography in prose poetry.

  • Wednesday, November 01, 2017 11:56 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    In August 1949, LIFE Magazine published a four-page spread on Jackson Pollock with the headline, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” This was virtually unheard of – never before had a magazine like LIFE given over so much real estate to a visual artist. Let alone to someone as provocative as Pollock, nicknamed “Jack the Dripper” for his novel style of drip painting. 

    That same year, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York purchased a painting by Andrew Wyeth, a contemporary of Pollock’s. In a unanimous decision, the museum’s board purchased Wyeth’s modest-sized painting from a New York gallery for $1,800 – then considered a major sum for a painting. That work, “Christina’s World,” still hangs in the permanent collection at MoMA.

    However, not long after buying it, MoMA seemed to cast the painting aside. Today, “Christina’s World” hangs on a wall in a back hallway leading to the bathrooms. If MoMA’s treatment of the painting is any indication, Wyeth has become an outcast, a figure on the periphery of American modernism. 

    How did this happen? How did Pollock become the star of modern art history while Wyeth was relegated to the sidelines? In an exhibition of over 100 paintings and sketches, “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” at the Seattle Art Museum seeks to bring Wyeth back to the forefront. Though for many, he never really left. 

    Over the course of his 75-year career, Wyeth was by all accounts a very successful painter – his works were hugely popular with the American public, who crammed into his exhibitions at museums and galleries throughout the late 20th century. “Christina’s World” has become one of the most recognized images in American art, as much an American icon as Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Wyeth’s portrait of Helga Testorf entitled “Braids” from 1977 has even been nicknamed “The American Mona Lisa.” In fact, a case could be made that Andrew Wyeth was the greatest living painter in the United States during the mid-20th century, not Pollock. 

    Many critics certainly felt this way. As one critic wrote in 1963, “In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wide-eyed radical. For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.” For those who felt alienated and confused by the increasingly abstract nature of American modern art, Wyeth represented a breath of fresh air. His paintings begged – and still beg – to be read like books. Their stories and characters spill out beyond the frame, traveling between canvases in a twisting, turning, ever-evolving narrative. His evocative scenes of spooky farmhouses, empty fields, and mysteriously shored boats read like scenes from a movie – one where the dramatic tension has been cranked all the way up.

    The SAM exhibition sets the stage for this eerily epic, sometimes salacious narrative to unfold. Opening with an introduction to Wyeth’s characters and scenes, the exhibit’s first room features a portrait of Wyeth’s wife Betsy next to a second portrait of his longtime neighbor Karl Kuerner. The rolling hills and Victorian farmhouses of Wyeth’s hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania are also introduced – a place that looms large throughout his work, standing almost as a character itself. 

    Explaining these people and places and laying bare his sources, the exhibit offers a new depth to Wyeth’s work. For many viewers, Wyeth’s characters may come to life here for the first time. When viewed alongside the preliminary sketches and wealth of expository material unearthed by curators Patricia Junker of SAM and Audrey Lewis of the Brandywine River Museum of Art, the people and places in Wyeth’s paintings become multilayered and complex. The exhibition also explores oft-overlooked aspects of Wyeth’s work, such as his fascination with film and the stories of his many African-American subjects. 

    Ultimately, what the exhibition makes clear is that this narrative aspect of Wyeth’s work is what continues to draw people into his strange world. It is a narrative dripping with drama – mysterious deaths, secret mistresses, and dark familial tragedies. It is the narrative of Andrew Wyeth the person. It is the story of his life and the people and places he saw along the way – carefully and painstakingly observed in his meticulously crafted paintings. 

    More than that, though, it is the story of Wyeth’s inner world. The exhibition reveals that far from the dispassionate illustrator he is often accused of being, Wyeth was in fact filtering his world through a very opaque lens. A lens of desire and grief, longing and confusion, ownership and helplessness. To look closely at his paintings is to distinguish this lens, to see how it shaped Wyeth’s own perceptions of his world. It reminds us that we, in turn, bring our own distinct lens to the people and places we encounter. Like Wyeth, we are each crafting stories about the experiences of our lives. This is what makes us human. 

    This reminder of our shared humanity helps explain Wyeth’s continued relevance today, 100 years after his birth and despite continual shunning from the art world. While the high modernists of MoMA ultimately put their money on abstraction and artists like Pollock, it doesn’t make Wyeth’s realist style any less valid or meaningful. “Christina’s World” may still be hanging next to a bathroom – MoMA wouldn’t even lend it to be included in this show – but the painting remains one of the most captivating images in the canon of American art, and Wyeth one of its greatest artists.

    Lauren Gallow

    Lauren Gallow is an arts writer, critic, and editor. You can read more of her work at

    “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect” is on view through January 15 at the Seattle Art Museum, located at 1300 First Avenue in Seattle, Washington. Hours are Wednesday, Friday through Sunday 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.; Thursday  from 10 A.M. to 9 P.M.; and closed Monday & Tuesday. For more information, call (206) 748-9287 or visit

  • Wednesday, November 01, 2017 11:49 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Wednesday, November 01, 2017 11:47 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    There Goes the Neighborhood

    I was remembering something I heard the other day. Two women were sitting on the bus discussing how much Seattle has changed. “When they tore down the Lusty Lady,” one of them said, “I thought to myself, now there goes the neighborhood.”

    I whipped out my pen. This probably crosses all kinds of old-school lines for some, but when I see or hear something that affects me, I don’t reach for my phone. I’m a writer. I don’t see the point of not writing. There’s still something to be said for letting emotional reactions fill the pages of a notebook.

    Then I overheard: “No, I’m not doing eyelash extensions. I have a lot of self-doubt. But not about my eyelashes.” 

    I was all ears. Excessively-long eyelashes are everywhere lately, so I love it when someone has the guts to push back against the latest trend that makes us feel like our faces are a problem to be fixed.

    My friends and I talk a lot about this, how sometimes we just have to push back against popular trends, beauty and otherwise, when we know things have gone too far.

    Take this morning. At two in the morning I pushed back. I pounded on my neighbor’s door.

    Wait, did I say “neighbor?” Because I don’t have a neighbor. I used to have a neighbor. His name was Dean. We shared a wall for a six years. We looked out for each other. I was surprised, outraged, when his landlord served him notice in order to turn his apartment into a vacation-rental. 

    Apartment by apartment, my Belltown building has become less of a vertical neighborhood and more of a hotel.

    I was working in San Francisco when vacation rental regulations were a city-wide debate. In the Mission, I went to listen to a group of Latinos talk about losing their hotel jobs. Not to work in hotels, not to have hotel jobs, is an incomprehensible way to live for these working people. VRBO/Airbnb is affecting their livelihood in ways — many ways — that I hadn’t thought about.

    Talk about coincidence. On my way home, I stopped at a bar in Noe Valley where a man argued, “No one’s going to tell me I can’t rent my place in the city by the week while I’m at my ranch in Wyoming.” 

    Now, there were at least three other things this man said that made me see how his argument summed up perfectly all the contradictions and inequities of contemporary life. How those with less charmed lives, without a spare house, or even a spare room, still need to work in exchange for a paycheck.  

    Still, I doubt the man who is buying up condos in our building in order to turn them into short-term rentals would consider himself someone who is contributing to the lack of affordable housing, but, in a less talked-about way, he is. And it’s funny, because the Airbnb promotional materials like to boast how you get to live “in a real neighborhood.”

    The trend is everywhere.

    When my friend and her infant son needed to find an apartment in Port Townsend, there were only four long-term rentals available. Yet, on the same town’s vacation-rental websites, there are hundreds of listings.

    And, try as I might, I cannot see a real neighborhood in that.

    Mary Lou Sanelli

    Sanelli, author and speaker, lives in Belltown. Visit

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