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Monday, November 5, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

Art review
Frye Museum's 'Mw [Moment Magnitude]' remakes what an exhibit can be

By Gayle Clemans
Special to The Seattle Times

I just may have to live at the Frye Art Museum over the next few months. The readings, rehearsals, musical performances and visual art that make up the current exhibition, "Mw [Moment Magnitude]," will keep me coming back at least once a week for the duration of the show. Maybe I can borrow one of the works on view, "Home ala Cart," a mobile camping unit created by Cris Bruch as a semi-sardonic solution to homelessness.

In some ways, particularly if you visit during a time when there's no additional programming going on, "Mw" looks like a typical art show. It's a very good show, showcasing Seattle-area artists who offer abundant visual and conceptual material to sink your teeth into, but it doesn't exactly shock the system, despite the reference to seismology (Moment Magnitude, denoted as Mw, is the successor to the Richter scale and is used to compare energy released by earthquakes).

On the other hand, if you carry the show's overarching concept around with you and really let it sink in, or if you visit when there's a performance or rehearsal going on, you'll get a different vibe. There's still no distinct jolt, but instead a steady, low rumbling of energy that can enter you, stay with you, and subtly alter the way you think about arts communities in Seattle.

The Frye describes "Mw" as an "ambitious cross-platform project of visual art, performance, production, rehearsal, specially commissioned artworks, music, dance, literary events, design and arts engagement programs showcasing exceptional artistic practice in Seattle." Many museums put together impressive packages of programming that function like satellites orbiting around the visual art exhibition. With "Mw," the musical, literary, performative and visual components were conceived as an organic whole that would spill into the galleries — and elsewhere around Seattle — over the duration of the exhibition.

Highlights of the art exhibition include the haunting and funky video by The Black Constellation, Shabazz Palaces and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, and the quirky and poetic light projection piece called "Sunrise/Sunset" by Anne Fenton. Surprises come with Jeffry Mitchell's fluttery, knobby wall hanging, made out of latex, and Leo Saul Berk's "Spider Hole," which looks like an abstract sculpture hanging from the ceiling, but is actually an exact reproduction of Saddam Hussein's hiding place recreated in glittering gold fiberglass.

In all of the galleries and with the entire show, there are no themes that set up particular lenses through which the work should be seen. Everything can simply be viewed or heard in the fullest range of moods and meanings.

The biggest gallery space is largely empty, with videos projected on a large-scale on two walls. The videos — of separate pieces by Wynne Greenwood and Perfume Genius (aka Seattle songwriter, musician and singer Mike Hadreas) — are compelling pieces, but there's also a sense that this space is meant to be activated by performances. Sure enough, the performance schedule is listed right on the wall.

On Saturday night, I went back to see Perfume Genius. The three-piece group performed in the big gallery, not in the auditorium or some tangential venue, but right in the heart of the exhibition. The aching melodies and thrumming chords and beats reverberated around the white cube. I would pay good money just to hear the heartbreaking way Hadreas sings the word "baby." But I didn't have to. The Frye, as always, is free. (Do check the Frye's website for instructions on reserving tickets for some events. With more than 200 people in the gallery, Saturday night's performance was "sold out.")

In between acts, I talked with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, director of the Frye, who was clearly elated by the energy of the whole shebang. Danzker, along with composer and performer Joshua Kohl, performance artist Ryan Mitchell, author Doug Nufer, and independent curator Yoko Ott, comprise the "curatorial collective" that conceived the show and selected the stellar roster of artists, writers and performers. Danzker spoke about what a joy it was to focus on Seattle artists and the importance of supporting artistic practice.

As I see it, the Frye is putting its money where its mouth is; a sizable number of new visual art, musical and performance pieces were commissioned for the exhibition. On a less observable level — the level of quiet vibration you might say — "Mw" asks us to experience, and really think about, the extraordinary creativity that arises in this city despite the difficult realities of making a living as an artist.

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