"WOW" intoxicates, vexes the senses

You're standing in a dark room facing a wall with a single window. A man stands there looking at you, his back to the wall. Suddenly, that whole broad expanse of wall teeters and soundlessly begins to fall. It wooshes down, right over the man. Your stomach churns; you gasp.

British artist Steve McQueen's video installation "Deadpan" at the Henry Art Gallery is an adrenaline rush followed by a four-minute meditation. That's one reason chief curator Liz Brown chose it for the Henry's new exhibit "WOW."

The premise of "WOW" — a sprawling contemporary art show that can both invigorate and vex — is simple:

Art is a drug.

It can make you see more, hear more, feel more: It alters your mind.

"Art opens up elements of being present in the world: being conscious, being open," Brown says.

She spent the last two years assembling an international cast of 14 artists, whose work rambles through the Henry Art Gallery and spills over into the alternative artspace Western Bridge on Fourth Avenue South. Each artist gets his or her own separate space, so it is less a group show than a series of individual exhibitions.

Brown believes each video, installation, painting, sculpture and photograph has the ability to grab audiences with a strong emotional, visceral or intellectual appeal. "WOW" — short for "work of the work" — is her way of summing up a show that's about the way artworks move us.

"It's about what they do — not what they're made of, not how they reflect an artist's sensibilities," Brown says.

That means you shouldn't need to stop and read a chunk of wall-text to "get" what you are looking at. Labeling in the show is minimal and people who want to take the next step and find out about the artists or Brown's suggestions for viewing the show, can refer to general gallery guides, available at the admission desk.

"WOW" incorporates three signature artworks from the Henry's collection: Gary Hill's extraordinary 16-channel video installation "Tall Ships"; Wolfgang Laib's eye-tingling burst of natural color, "Pollen from Hazelnut"; and the permanent James Turrell "Skyspace," hovering over the Henry's outdoor courtyard. All three are major works that support the Henry's identity as the Northwest's premier venue for ground- breaking contemporary art.

Though the premise of "WOW" is simple, not everyone will agree that the artworks all live up to the wow factor.

Hill's 1992 installation, purchased for the Henry by the Lannan Foundation in 1996 is, for me, the high point. Based in Seattle, Hill was one of three internationally acclaimed artists commissioned to create site-specific pieces for Seattle's new Rem Koolhaas-designed public library. The library video installation, a rush of computer-generated video images on a 40-foot-square wall of the multistory atrium, is smart and thought-provoking, but the Henry's "Tall Ships" is a masterpiece.

Hill walks us down a 60-foot-long dark corridor, where, as we approach, ghostly figures rise one by one and step toward us. It reminds me of the scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus stands at the brink of the underworld accosted by ghosts and, among the swarm, spots his own mother. Yet when he reaches out to hold her, his hands slip through the air. Even our daily encounters with friends, family and colleagues can sometimes feel as illusory as those in "Tall Ships," each of us living inside our own set of perceptions and memories.

Like McQueen's video "Deadpan," "Tall Ships" startles you out of the commonplace and sets your brain tingling. Yet the diffuse format of "WOW" — which meanders unmarked through several upstairs galleries at the Henry (where it adjoins a show of design models and images by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava), then spreads into the downstairs galleries and finishes across town at Western Bridge — lessens some of the impact the show is geared to create. The exhibit wants more fanfare, a dramatic entry point that let's you know you have arrived in the land of "WOW."

At Western Bridge — where you enter to Gary Hill's video installation "Conundrum" and can walk inside the light show of Carsten Holler's "Neon Circle" and the entrancing drone of Kimsooja's "Mandala: Zone of Zero" among others — the experience feels more condensed and directed.

At the Henry, if you wander in off the street and head into the top-floor galleries, your first art experience is a group of six Ektacolour prints by Mike Kelley that look like Mark Rothko paintings dipped in purple dye. (Turns out they are made from photographs of Rothko's work.) My impulse was to register that information and keep walking. Nothing told me I had entered the exhibition — and I didn't feel bowled over.

Down the hall, the Laib installation has its own small gallery that you peer into: a corral of pure, blissful color that stands in contrast to the cacophony of Candice Breitz's "Diorama (Miami Version)" in the next gallery. You enter "Diorama" as if it were your own retro living room, complete with fuzzy gray carpet, only to be assaulted by the sights and sounds of nine televisions firing short DVD loops. It's dizzying, engulfing and kind of wonderful to sit in a cozy armchair and try to sort out the din of voices and imagery.

Downstairs, which is fully given over to "WOW," the video installations by McQueen, Catherine Yass and Kimsooja are the most exciting. Other parts of the show engaged me — the late Hannah Villiger's sculptural photographs of her own body, Olafur Iliasson's grid of ice photographs — but didn't deliver the punch the show set me up for.

There is a heavy dose of monochrome abstraction by California artist Anne Appleby and Scottish artist Callum Innes, with a sizable group of Appleby's paintings at the Henry and Western Bridge. Just the tasty Western Bridge installation of Appleby's dense, modulated paintings would have better made the point.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Opening tonight

"WOW (The Work of the Work)," opening celebration with music by the Black Cat Orchestra, 7-10 tonight ($8), exhibit runs 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays), through Feb. 6, Henry Art Gallery, 4100 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle; $8 general, $6 seniors, free for students and members (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org). Noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays at Western Bridge, 3412 Fourth Ave. S., Seattle; free (206-838-7444 or www.westernbridge.org).