Julia Freeman at 4 Culture
Posted on June 21, 2011 | By Andrew Bartels
4 Culture, Seattle’s most proactive arts, heritage, preservation, and public arts patron, has established itself over the past 35 years as an engine of project-based art-making in Seattle. Though much of the organization’s work happens behind the scenes (including a lobbying campaign over the past 5 years to secure state funding, which resulted, after much nail-biting, in a victory in June) its prominent storefront gallery is a distinct manifestation of its promotion of visual artists. For young, Seattle-based artists looking to establish themselves, a solo show at 4 Culture’s storefront gallery is a rite of passage into the Seattle arts community, and often marks a significant development or turning point in a nascent artistic career.
In addition to the validation and legitimacy a 4 Culture show offers, storefront exhibitions afford the artist complete freedom to “transform the space” without the pressures a typical commercial gallery exerts. It’s a prime opportunity for an artist to be ambitious, pose questions, explore real paradox, and be critical. For Julia Freeman, whose range of materials are far from ordinary (wood, canvas, paint, photographs, tape, a mirror, bricks), Very Little Room for Mishaps is a declaration of an approach that moves beyond formal and aesthetic concerns toward art as environment, personal and social autonomy, and psychological space.
Freeman’s claustrophobic, stage-like, environmental installation magnifies the themes of her previous works in both intensity and scale. To walk into the gallery is literally to walk into a three-dimensional amalgamation of a series of whimsical 2010 collage-paintings of hers called “Magical Collections.” Several motifs seem to have been transferred from these earlier works to the current show unaltered, including the cloying floral-print “Yellow Wallpaper,” photos of potted boxwood shrubs, oversized red ants, and those dark, deceptively flat blobs. At first, I was slightly suspicious of the parallels, as if the installation didn’t really propose anything new. Yet other elements take on a conceptual dimension in the current show, including the room as spatial concept, the use of silhouettes, and viewer interaction.
Freeman explores what it means to inhabit her art, for others to inhabit it, and the result is close to the idea of a film set, albeit a somewhat corny and surreal one, à la David Lynch. A dramatic, eerie soundtrack (created by Ajax Wood and J.M. McNulty) plays at the back of the gallery, directing the mood of the installation, and adding coherence and gravity to the other disparate and whimsical elements. There are no cameras, and no director, however. The suggestion to move the “stage props” (the free-standing sculptures are meant to be wheeled around to allow the viewer to “construct his/her own personal narrative”) feels a little awkward and puts a weird pressure on the viewer, turning the tables, so to speak. I rearranged the potted plants and felt a little disappointed. I looked to see if anyone was watching.
Art that asks the viewer to physically engage with it is often visceral, and may even provoke the viewer to challenge their assumptions or evaluate their own behavior. If done effectively and purposefully, it can be powerful. If it’s as simple as providing a few variables, like mobile sculptures, and asking the viewer to “wheel them around,” then Freeman has us fooled. I’m suspicious of work that justifies half-baked concepts as room for personal interpretation. Yet I suspect Freeman has more tact than that, and her intention is more subversive. For starters, we’re keyed into an ominous political anxiety by the first piece we see upon entering the gallery: “Cape,” a hooded, reaper-like cloak made from the same floral-painted canvas as “Yellow Wallpaper.” It is suspended several feet off of the ground and faces the center of the gallery, sort of presiding over the exhibition like an ill-omened scarecrow (or the absent director). I immediately thought of the infamous photo from Abu Ghraib in 2004, of the hooded and cloaked “Gilligan” being electrocuted. Nearby, “Preparation Table” supports the latter interpretation, with its array of generic, black, weapon-like props, suggesting low-budget terrorist activity. The red velvet table skirt and the silicone dappled mirror create an aura of illusion that befits the idea of a stage and perhaps alludes to the continuous flood of deceptive information promulgated about US foreign policy actions.
Freeman’s black humor prevents the political elements from dominating the show or sacrificing effect for a “message.” The reaper who would wear “Cape,” with its playful colors, might be cracking jokes on his errands. And the “Reward Medals,” fabric military decorations cynically displayed on a real-estate sign post, are both silly and shameful. (You can pin one on your shirt, if you want). This light / dark duality descends from another series of paintings by Freeman, the oxymoronic “War Toys,” which depict fantastical war-vehicles as a take on a somewhat updated military-industrial complex. Unlike “War Toys,” which is static and mildly critical, the current show presents a more dynamic and ambiguous political environment, one that makes room for the weirdness of everyday life, the subconscious, and dreams.
The “Yellow Wallpaper” in itself isn’t terribly compelling, yet it dominates the space with warm colors and silly details, like googly eyes, oversized ants, and dripping paint (the dime-sized mirrors add a nice depth). The wallpaper sets the scene and allows contrast for the darker elements, including the grotesque “Enigma (The Blob),” which is a bogey-man type monster reminiscent of B-rated, mid-century horror films and their subliminal propaganda. “Enigma” is also symbolic of some psychological monster or personal demon, a doubting voice, an anxiety or fear that has grown out of proportion and so becomes ridiculous. Against the wallpaper, “Enigma” is almost endearing, an awkward giant, who perhaps crawled from the brick well, titled “The Alice,” and now poses in this weird room of the mind.
If you can imagine the show as a sort of narrative or parable as you walk through it, then Freeman has situated “Collar” as the culmination or apex of the exhibit. The white rectangle panel, lit with a spotlight, obviously represents a blank painting surface, on which Freeman has drawn (in clear caulk) a lacey, geometric design that looks like an Elizabethan collar. The collar represents high society as well as confinement, both of which Freeman rejects in favor of her messy, common materials and psychological reality (which is also fantastical and absurd). I’d venture to say that “Collar” is a personal declaration that Freeman has established her interests in art-making, and they are not flat.
Freeman deploys political allusions in a general and even vague way, probably wisely, because the effect lies in the nebulous realms of psychology and personal autonomy, in the interaction between psychology and environment. The idea that you can create your own personal narrative by moving the elements around the room is a bit canned. Looked at another way, and considering the political and performative context that Freeman has assembled, the stagy props and “personal narrative” prompt could be a cynical joke, prodding people to act out their lack of political autonomy. Then again, in the context of 4 Culture’s tortuous political advocacy and recent victory for the arts (due largely in part to a grass-roots campaign) these small actions perhaps signal some hope.