Western Bridge: a poetic home for risky new work

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The Western Bridge gallery is a little like the new Seattle Public Library: The building itself is such a wonderful thing you'll want to go there to experience it, no matter what you find inside.

Collectors Bill and Ruth True opened the nonprofit art space to show work from their own extensive contemporary art collection, much of which will eventually be given or loaned to the Henry Art Gallery. In partnership with Western Bridge, the Henry is currently showing a small selection of work from the True collection, which leans heavily to video, photography and installation art of the past 10 years.

Western Bridge is on Fourth Avenue South, behind the offices of Gull Oil, Bill True's family business. In remodeling the old warehouse space, Bill and Ruth gave free rein to artist/designer Roy McMakin, who converted the once-bland industrial building into a lighthearted 10,000-square-foot adventure. He turned every window, doorframe and pillar into a surprise, starting with the massive front door, which swooshes open through a corner of a square window into the sculptural two-story entryway, a new addition.

To top off that unexpected bit of geometry, McMakin poured on the poetry: He painted a froth of trompe l'oeil clouds on a panel along the building's roofline, so that it gently dissolves into the sky. Even the cheerful gallery sign, poked askew into the ground outside the front door, is worth a smile.

Inside, McMakin took pains to keep the galleries neutral, spacious and art-friendly — avoiding the architectural sin of letting his design muscle out the work it's meant to house. Nevertheless, his style is apparent everywhere in the details — including a reverence for plywood and unexpected fixtures. A wall in a downstairs restroom includes a little joke, the clever installation of a "readymade" artwork by Andrea Zittel: a heavy-doored aluminum porthole. It's a handsome piece of equipment one hopes will have limited use in its current location.

The opening exhibit, called "Possessed," features an assortment of a dozen or so artists, including Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, whose beautifully composed 10-minute black-and-white video, "Possessed," inspired the show title. Neshat has gotten a lot of attention the past few years for work including video installations in the Venice Biennale and Whitney Biennial. Her "Possessed" is a high point of the Western Bridge show. It wordlessly follows a distraught woman, ranting as she wends through an ancient, unnamed town, where a crowd gathers and, incited by her strangeness, eventually dissolves into fighting and chaos as she slips away unnoticed.

The other major installation, "Mouth open, teeth showing" by Zoe Leonard, is a regiment of 113 vintage and abandoned dolls. Standing evenly spaced throughout the gallery, they provide a creepy commentary on women's stereotypical roles in society. The dolls, some half-naked and bludgeoned-looking after years of hard use, can symbolize both the act of ownership and the state of being possessions — as toys and as the girls and women they represent.

In keeping with the exhibit theme, much of the work tends to be angst-ridden. Sam Taylor-Wood's video "Hysteria" is a prolonged close-up of a woman's face in a soundless shriek between despair and crazy laughter. Rosemarie Trockel and Carsten Höller's video "Atma & Shobha" alternates shots of a man and a woman urgently running, crashing into pedestrians, veering through alleyways. Why? We never find out.

I found Tony Oursler's video-installation "Below" more engaging and bleakly funny. One of his video-faced eggheads (similar to the ones at the new Public Library) seems to be perennially stuck underwater, trying to live on a lungful of held breath: an endless torture worthy of Dante.

Over the years, the Trues have won a lot of affection in the art community for their warmth and openness, as well as their commitment to risky new artwork. They buy work of emerging international stars as well as local artists — and that's a great thing.

I love the photograph by Seattle artist Alice Wheeler, a Cindy Sherman send-up called "Wicked Witch of the West." A piece by the other Seattle artist in the show, Nicola Vruwink, doesn't hold up as well. Her fussy installation of video and found objects, a Martha Stewart satire titled "Living," is already past its limited shelf life.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Exhibit reviews

"Possessed," noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Oct. 9, Western Bridge, 3412 Fourth Ave. S., Seattle (206-838-7444 or www.westernbridge.org).

"Selections from the Collection of William and Ruth True," 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, extended hours until 8 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct. 3, Henry Art Gallery, 4100 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).