Alternative Art -- A New Accounting

It's almost 10 p.m. on First Thursday; the grander art galleries are already shuttered. But from First Ave. to Jackson to Occidental South, the streets are still alive with art-seekers. Although this traffic flows between so-called "alternative" spaces - like Soil, the Garde Rail Gallery, Jem Studios, Zeitgeist and Seer Media - the population is rather surprising. It includes Armani suits as well as vintage finery, elegant gray coiffures beside shaven heads.

The swirl reaches an apex inside a brown building one block north of the Kingdome. There, up a set of old stairs, the central room is packed. Its visitors roam, gaze, chat - and patiently stand in line. Most are hoping to grab a place on one of nine different perches, from airplane seats to suburban sofas. People are listening to "curated" sounds, looped over and over on tapes and audible via headphones.

"Loop" is a typical installation at Project 416, a gallery at the center of a young Pioneer Square revival. Over the past two years, a string of sites have helped rejuvenate what had become a stodgy and predictable Artwalk. Project 416 is among the best-known of these venues - yet its organization is unique among them. While others wait on grants, paychecks, dealers or curators, 416 has made itself a Limited Liability Company: a legal partnership for conducting business.

Its leased premises is home not only to studios (25 artists rent workplaces ringing the gallery), but to a whole slew of creators and fans. In the 25 months since it incorporated, more than 200 people have shown or performed in the gallery.

Of more importance, however, is the tone of their work, all of which presumes that art is a dialogue. Not just a conversation between artists but a wide discussion of the links between visuals, media, politics, content, form, sound, aesthetics and audience. Ask locals what they think about the gallery's orientation, and the word you hear over and over is "vision."

The vision thing at 416 originated with five founders: artists Walter Wright, Kineta Chien, H.G. Wells, Sultan Mohammed and Steve Veach. Initially, all rented studio space in the building, then run by a group called Wonderful World of Art. Wonderful World held solo shows by the artist-residents, and would also hire out the gallery space. But when the master leaseholder moved to Portland, the five friends got nervous about their studios' future.

Chien, Wright, Veach, Mohammed and Wells wanted real security. So they went into partnership as an LLC, with a company named after the building's street address. "We needed," says Wright, "to open a bank account, take on the commercial lease and organize the finances." The master lease is now subsidized by studio rentals, with a slender budget left over for running the gallery. Although decisions are still taken by four partners (Veach has since moved to Chicago), Wright serves as the gallery manager.

Project 416 may have a traditional structure. But, with its very first show, it staked a claim to difference. "We want the whole space," says Wright, "to function as an experiment. So we started with the show `Mediumbuilt.' "

"Mediumbuilt" was partly created with the gallery's fabric. The walls were painted with vertical stripes in two shades of gray, an alcove was rendered golden, another hallway scarlet. Murals were painted directly onto giant walls, and their pixelations repeated on the building's pillars. Huge digital photos and videos mocked advertising; painted clouds were bound to the floor with actual chains and weights. An outsize superhero suit on a wall stretched its sleeves and legs throughout the whole gallery.

"Mediumbuilt" included work by Shawn Wolfe, Sean Miller, John Kieltyka, Monika Lidman, Blair Wilson and Bethany Taylor. Says Taylor, "The actual work was almost all about either duplication or reproduction. But it was interesting how the space contributed. Even with six people showing, it looked like one installation."

For Project 416, this proved a perfect kickoff. Soon, Wright discovered a motherlode of talent to tap: the expanding number of Seattle artists who think alike. Most are young and willing to contribute sweat equity in return for community discourse and some mutual support. Many have arrived here from other places, with fresh viewpoints and a huge range of new connections. They are the perfect troops to energize a scene where art has often been presented mainly as commodity.

And Walter Wright is one of their biggest champions. With only $600 or less per show, he matches two and three artists up for each exhibition. Sometimes he offers a theme, other times a theme is suggested. Or a show will be proposed by an in-house artist. "A lot of great ideas," he notes, "simply walk in through the door." Project 416 pays for printing invitations, does publicity, helps artists hang the shows and, on opening night, manages a gala reception.

However, they take only 25 percent commission - half the more familiar, commercial rate. "This way," says Wright, "the artists often make some money. Plus, they can sell for less, which offers buyers a better chance."

This kind of strategy is not peculiar to 416. Using aggressive publicity, creating a sense of occasion, and keeping overheads low, Pioneer Square's alternative spaces are selling more and more work. Zeitgeist, the art coffee bar, sells four to eight pieces a month; Garde Rail, a gallery in an apartment, does equally well. Most of the buyers are young, and almost all come back for more. But lay-away plans and "partial payment" schemes are needed to woo them.

Artist Jesse Paul Miller credits 416 for helping. "It's a pivotal part of the scene. 416 believes that art shouldn't depend on the rich. Even if Boeing and Microsoft both went under, 95 percent of what these artists do wouldn't change. People buy their art because they want to have it around."

Miller can testify to the reach of 416. During the summer of 1997, he created some phonograph records cast in glass, resin and epoxy. He began exhibiting these in motion on record-players, in small venues such as Belltown's Wall of Sound shopfront. There, as Miller "played" a disc cast in ice, a woman from the street wandered and warbled along. Walter Wright, who was watching, offered Miller an exhibition.

Two months after their presentation at 416, Miller's "Secret Records" were on show at the Seattle Art Museum. It was not the first time 416 has served as a conduit, but the space does not intend to represent individuals. Says Wright, "The thing we really want is to challenge each other. That can only happen if you don't have to appease the gallery. Or the buyer - or the critic."

Brent Watanabe is another artist who agrees. This painter and film-maker did an installation for "Loop." "What do I like most about 416? The fact that it feels like an art gallery. Not a place with an agenda, like `Hey, look, we're highbrow!' You go in and you get to look at art - not products."

Other artists praise the venue's accessibility. Melynda Gierard showed at 416 last August: four giant quilts made of folded Post-It notes. Since Gierard splits her time between Alaska and Germany, mounting the exhibition presented plenty of challenges. Early in July, she arrived in Seattle; over seven days, she constructed three new pieces. "That whole time I was almost living in the space, and there were always artists passing in and out. So I got plugged into this fabulous niche art scene. Then, at my opening, there were more than 300 people. I'll never have an opening that fun again."

Among the public who admired Gierard's work were a critic from Art in America - and the curator of the Bellevue Art Museum. Art in America will feature her work in '99, and she now has four pieces on view in Bellevue. She owes it all, says Gierard, to 416.

It's true, says artist-musician Brian Wallace, another of the nine "Loop" contributors. The gallery's experiments are a key to its reputation. "I see all kinds of people every First Thursday. And they all always say, `Have you been down to 416?' Because that's always where you see something interesting."

This is unlikely to change, unless the gallery's lease is threatened. For Project 416 remains in favor of transformation. It just completed a year-long proposition where the gallery's back-room space was donated to guest curators. Six artists took it on, free to do whatever they liked. Says Wright, "Those people have overlapping concerns. We wanted to offer them a home, let them really experiment. It was great, and our audience liked to follow it."

Wright may be the public face of 416. But he consistently evades solo credit; he points, instead, toward his partners and their studio colleagues. Although he loves conceptual art, Wright is just as fervent when it comes to tradition. October's show was devoted to Ruth Fernandes, an in-house painter and textile artist. She filled the space with a dazzling show: a series of huge, complex "paintings" executed in fabric. Wright found them stunning, as did others; this month, Fernandes can be seen at Madrona Automatic.

At the moment, Wright is enthused by the annual studio show, which is mounted by resident artists. ("It's a chance to demonstrate what goes on behind those doors.") But, come next month, 416 is changing again, with a major remodel of the gallery. It will reopen in February - determined to be better as well as bigger.

Says Wright, "Seattle has a great number of creative people, people who generate really solid, provocative, thoughtful work. Some of that is outside what's deemed `marketable.' That's where we come in, where we can really help."


Studio address

Project 416 LLC is at 416 Occidental Ave. S. (second floor); 206-749-9220 or 323-7812; e-mail: Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday-Sunday, , and by appointment. The studio show runs until Dec. 31 (closed Dec. 25-26).



Ace Gallery, 619 Western Ave., third floor; 206-623-1288; 6-9 p.m. First Thursdays, noon-5 p.m. Saturday, and by appointment.

ArtSpace, 216 Alaskan Way S.; 206-442-9365; 1-6 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Collusion Unlimited, 163 S. Jackson St., second floor; 206-652-5209; noon-5 p.m. Thursday-Friday, and by appointment. Open late First Thursdays.

Foto Circle, 163 S. Jackson St., second floor; 206-624-2645. noon-5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, and by appointment. Open 6-9 p.m. First Thursdays.

Garde Rail Gallery, 312 First Ave. S., No. 5; 206-623-3004. 7-10:30 p.m. on first and third Thursdays of each month, and by appointment. Closed Dec. 12-28.

Jem Studios complex, 163 S. Jackson St. This multistoried building filled with workspaces hosts open studios and stages individual and group shows every First Thursday. Second floor is home to three galleries.

Lead Gallery and Wine Bar, 1022 First Ave.; 206-623-6240. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday.

Oculus, 163 S. Jackson St., second floor; no phone. noon-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and by appointment. Open late First Thursdays.

RAW, 409 Seventh Ave. S.; 206-340-1445; 6-10 p.m. Thursday-Friday; noon-6 p.m. Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday, and by appointment.

Soil, 310 First Ave. S.; no phone; noon-5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday.

Zeitgeist Kunst and Kaffe, 161 S. Jackson St.; 206-583-0497; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 6 a.m.-10:30 p.m. First and Third Thursdays.