The Stranger Logo   Seattle's Only Arts Section
Aug 5 - Aug 11, 2004

Two Artists Keep Their Distance
by Nate Lippens

Kate Hunt Davidson Galleries
313 Occidental Ave S,
Through Aug 21.

Mark Mumford James Harris Gallery
309A Third Ave S, 903-6220
Through Aug 21.

"When people say they need space, they never say how much. But it always seems to be the exact amount of space occupied by you," Irish comedian and curmudgeon Dylan Moran has observed. Of course, art can have the same relationship with a viewer, making you aware of how much space you take up, sometimes making you want to stand back or even leave.

Both Kate Hunt and Mark Mumford need space and they need you there to define it. Their approaches and mediums are radically different, although both are minimalists. Hunt's sculptures and installations take shape in space or rearrange your relationship to the space. Mumford's photographs are McLuhan-esque exercises in message and media, but because this is such a familiar postmodern tactic and his messages confront absence rather than presence, his work keeps its distance by speaking directly at you.

Upon entering Davidson Galleries you are immediately greeted by Kate Hunt's Floor. It's nearly 12 x 14 feet, consisting of 20 sections of newspaper twined together. A small sign encourages you to walk on it but there's something slightly intimidating at the prospect--like going to a party where the host asks you to remove your shoes. The piece is, in fact, solid enough to be walked on in shoes and it's wonderfully sacrilegious to actually do so. The sections of Floor are made up of stacked strips of paper that seem to maintain their natural delicacy but have gathered strength in their reconstruction; of her sculptures this one possesses the most resemblance to its original matter. The piece dramatizes the impermanence of the newspaper and everything in it: It's all eventually just mulch--recycled or landfilled. The transitory nature of information--and our attempts to physically record, comment on, and contain our society--is shredded, bundled, and underfoot.

The two other most interesting sculptures consist of newspaper, epoxy, cloth, and wax supported on steel braces. Elephant Piece is eight shapes nailed to a support that suggest tusks or trunks. The newspaper has been molded into nearly symmetrical, vaguely anatomical sections, and they have a sheen to them that is part sensual, part severe. Undecided is a variation on Elephant Piece, but more misshapen and free, and partially blackened. What is it undecided about? That it hasn't taken on a more discernible, suggestive shape? It's not a newspaper anymore, but it's not a representational piece either. It's a distortion. Both Undecided and Elephant Piece have an element of menace and sex that reminds me of Louise Bourgeois' sculptures, but Hunt's works are concerned with a more general tendency toward cultural irrelevance; they're not expressionistic or biographical works.

Mark Mumford's exhibit at James Harris is deceptively simple--or is it just simple? It's six photographs of different office chairs with placards on them that say things like: "Break It Down," "Very Nearly Empty," "There Is Nothing Left to Do," and "There Is Nothing Left to Say." The petulant void that each image presents defeats the desire to argue with it. When you turn around there is a chair mounted by its feet high on the opposite wall, with a sign that says: "The Truth Is This."

If the prints bring to mind Barbara Kruger or the generation of artists since her who have employed messages as their mediums, they also hint at the aphorisms in Ed Ruscha's drawings, which incorporate palindromes like "Tulsa slut" and "borrow or rob" and clever insinuations such as "One Night Stand Forever." Mumford's phrases could be the titles of Lydia Davis or Lynne Tillman stories--you don't need a narrative to flesh out the hard despondency and attendant bad wisdom that accompany them. But with only slight variations on Mumford's theme--he uses a different chair in each picture--we're left with a standoff that in a strange way, as with Jenny Holzer or Kruger's completely confrontational pieces, is a closed circuit. It's a deflationary message: I need you here so I can tell you I don't need you here.

In a way, both Hunt and Mumford are telling us about the difference we can never make. Her sculptures puncture our ideas about inherent importance using actual and cultural recycling. His photographs strip advertising from its postmodern knowingness to know-nothingness. The accumulation of his anti-message grows more bleak as you follow the placards along the wall, starting with bravado ("Break It Down") and ending in nothingness and defeat ("There Is Nothing Left to Do").

Not that they are nihilists. They both also offer breathing room, little spaces in their relationship with the viewer that are small portals of possibility. Hunt's Undecided allows ambivalence, evolution, and growth: It could become something else; it's imperfect enough and has moved so far beyond the form of the other pieces that it can't go back; it's made of the same materials but it's different. Mumford's chair mounted to the wall is what opens his work up. It's almost as Zen as Hunt's newspapers--and in their very separate ways they point in a similar direction: The messages we feed ourselves about civilization (in the form of news, in Hunt's case, and advertising, in Mumford's) are numbing. Hunt conveys a deceptively meditative aesthetic to her work; it's just paper, recycling. What could be more natural and Northwestern than that? Mumford's aesthetic is funny, more heated, and slightly forbidding--the kind of conceptual photography that is often dismissed as the Emperor's New Clothes--except these images are so naked, so stripped down, that they are ready for action. If you feel confronted and weirdly judged standing before Mumford's photographs, the chair offers redemption--a witty one at that: "The Truth Is This." The images on the wall stare you down but the chair on the wall--the actual object--is cockeyed. Just a humble chair with a placard--not a slick, efficient message of negation.

KATE HUNT Sex, menace, and the transitory nature of information
photo by Alice Wheeler
"©" Copyright 2004