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Friday, June 1, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Visual Arts

Private galleries, personal visions

Seattle Times art critic

In the rarefied world of private galleries, the public is invited to glimpse the artistic taste of the very rich. What we often see is art that will one day end up in a museum; owners of private galleries usually sit on museum boards and help shape their vision. Seattle has two such places: The Wright Exhibition Space, which Virginia and Bagley Wright opened in 1999 to show parts of the extensive collection they have promised to Seattle Art Museum; and Western Bridge, opened in 2004 by Bill and Ruth True, patrons of the Henry Art Gallery.

This summer, both galleries are housing works that spring from the abstract and minimalist aesthetic of the 1960s and '70s, currently back in vogue. The large-scale abstract paintings at the Wright Space date from that period and complement a huge new painting by Alfred Jensen purchased recently by Virginia Wright. "Cheop's Testament," a six-section, 25-foot dazzler painted in 1964, stands as the centerpiece of the show. Adding context are selected works by the likes of Larry Poons, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella.

Minimalism and color field painting are high points of the Wright collection, and this is the kind of show their gallery was made for. The proportions, the soft natural light from above, the configuration of the space all contribute to show off the grand scale of the paintings and their once-provocative imagery.

Exhibition reviews


"Large Scale Abstract Paintings, 1960-1979," 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, through Sept. 7, Wright Exhibition Space, 407 Dexter Ave. N., Seattle (206-264-8200).

"Bill Fontana: Objective Sound," noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 4, Western Bridge, 3412 Fourth Ave. S., Seattle (206-838-7444 or www.westernbridge.org).

It's a treat to see the huge Jensen painting. He was an art-world original, a kind of insider and outsider at the same time, who painted unfathomable systems in glaring, primary colors. The title "Cheop's Testament" is a clue to the metaphysical trappings behind the imagery: The mysteries of ancient Egypt and the pyramids are a perennial focus of intrigue.

Jensen (1904-80) was also fascinated by numerology and color theory, and while it's clear enough there's a method behind "Cheop's Testament," there's nothing that spells out its meaning for us. What's obvious is that it's loaded with paint — in thick, buttery, sensuous smears — and a quirky vocabulary of pyramids, circles, squares and assorted geometry. The imagery of board games clearly appealed to Jensen: dart boards, checkerboards, dice, what have you, in all their high-contrast duality. Behind the profusion of symbols in "Cheops' Testament," the color progresses from left to right like the course of a day, from yellow and white through red to a delicious purple-tinged blue that ends up midnight-black.

In hanging the show, Jinny Wright framed the Jensen smartly, with the lyrical geometry of Ron Davis' 1977 "Open Intersect" to the left and the spattered deep-blue monochrome of Poons' 1966 "Knoxville" to the right. It's a pleasure to see.

"Objective Sound"

At Western Bridge, Bill Fontana's installation "Objective Sound" — commissioned by Bill True for the gallery — owes its inspiration to the groundbreaking work of artist/composer John Cage, as he experimented with minimalism in the 1960s and delved into the nature of music. Fontana, who was born in Cleveland in 1947 and now lives in San Francisco, studied with Cage at The New School in New York.

Fontana was at Western Bridge when I visited and led me through the workings of the piece, which he calls "a living work of art." Basically, he is channeling sound from outside the building through a sort of "acoustic still life" of objects he found at a surplus store: an iron buoy, I-beams, pipes, large bottles and cylinders. They're assembled in the glass-fronted media room at Western Bridge, and wired to microphones so they add their own resonance to the outdoor sounds passing through. It's all mixed in a computer and broadcast through speakers positioned around the building's interior.

You can recognize the train whistles, the airplane engines, the trucks whizzing by, but they've been translated from the kind of city background din we try to block out, into a different, more ethereal song. Except for the arrangement of found "instruments" in the media room, the galleries are empty. The drifting sound is all there is.

Don't try for this effect in a noisy tenement apartment hanging over I-5. Western Bridge is built to keep outdoor noise at bay and thus provides a blank canvas for the newly shaped sounds Fontana has choreographed. You might consider the empty art gallery wafting with sound a "palette cleanser," as gallery director Eric Fredericksen called it; an intriguing, rather meditative experience, as I found it; or, you might concur with an exasperated friend of mine who described the nearly invisible installation as "the emperor's new clothes."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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