Picture this: a dimly lit room filled with people and the pungent smell of wine, packed in by a low ceiling and walls filled with brightly colored paintings, moody landscapes and languid interpretations of nature.
This scene describes the opening reception for the “Darks and Lights” exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum on Oct. 19 in a vaguely cramped room adjacent to the gift shop.
The exhibit featured artists Enid Smith Becker, Deborah Bell, Nick Brown, Nichole DeMent and Barbara Shaiman, who all interpreted the theme of the event in a variety of different ways.
In the context of art, the theme Darks and Lights can encompass many interpretations. Some artists featured in the exhibit had a more abstract perspective on the meaning, while others looked at it in a plain, straight-forward way.
To Bell, this exhibit emphasized the value of color, or the degree of dark to light. She used acrylic paint and mixed media collage with unidentifiable forms to create multiple themes in her paintings.
Some of them emphasized bright colors, the concentration of the color. In others, Bell used mostly black, white and greys in the paintings.
DeMent interpreted this as opposition.
DeMent’s pieces were done using mixed media encaustic, which is formed using layers of wax to create a very soft image. The paintings featured elements of nature like flowers and leaves, but juxtaposed them with moody colors such as beige and black.
Brown had a literal interpretation of dark and light. Brown filled the canvas with black line art to depict detailed urban scenes of packed apartments in Shanghai.
Despite the simplicity of the style and medium, Brown created a vivid picture of what these apartment complexes would look like. He included details like clothes lines and dying plants, something one might not see in more romanticized portrayals of city life.
Barbara Shaiman, the only sculptor featured in this exhibit, saw the theme of dark and light as opposition as well. Shaiman used drastically different patterns in the unique shapes of her sculptures.
Because the subject of darks and lights was so broad the exhibit itself lacked real unity, despite all the spectacular work of the artists. The exhibit was disjointed. As incredible as the pieces were, the inherent breadth of the theme prevented true commonality throughout the exhibit.
Take, for example, the work of Becker who did a variety of landscape paintings – ocean scapes, dying fields of grass, mountains – that were distorted in a grid-like fashion.
The paintings themselves were incredible. The colors and the scene of the fragmented landscape fostered deep emotional pull.
However, the style in the work differed so greatly from other paintings that, moving through the exhibit, viewers could get whiplash from all of the constant change.
Another example of this was a sculpture done by DeMent. It was a metal rendering of a very simple dress painted white in a way that made it look aged.
It caught the eye visually, but left viewers wondering, once again, why it was there.
As much as its presence was appreciated, it did not fit into the theme of the exhibit, and unlike the other paintings where viewers could find a way to justify their presence, that was not possible with this piece.
This again led viewers to ask, “How does everything in this exhibit fit together?”
That said, the theme did a wonderful job at emphasizing an important question in the art world: How should art be defined?
All of the paintings were interesting, and experiencing different ways dark and light can be interpreted prompts the idea of ambiguity in the definition of art. Art does not have a universal definition, and this exhibit helped illustrate the result of this.
Art students of Seattle Pacific can see this exhibit as a way to explore what their own art means. Does it follow the conventional idea of art, or does it run off the beaten path?
Art can be used as a way to experiment with different styles and mediums, and this exhibit can be seen as a charge to emphasize the creative freedom that art offers.