As we entered the Frye museum on a gray Seattle Sunday, several performers traipsed by us in the opposite direction. They were dressed as if in direct contrast to the outside bleakness, in colors and makeup that shouted with color and pattern. The troupe gave off an effervescent energy that commanded our eyes, even as we moved toward the back galleries “to begin at the beginning”, as it were, with the Frye’s historical collection. The Frye is a private collection in the tradition of Boston’s Isabella Stuart Gardner or Houston’s Menil Collection. It houses what was initially a private collection of paintings, but in conjunction with the estate of the original collectors, has been transformed into a museum. It is humbler than either of the aforementioned institutions, but far more of the space is dedicated to showcasing a rotating selection of contemporary artists, including those from the city itself.
As it turned out, the performers we’d passed in the hallway were Cherdonna Shinatra, the alter-ego of dance artist Jody Kuehner, and her troop of manically-dressed minions. We spent some time exploring the other galleries and temporary installations and were too late to score a seat in the packed installation room, but the performance ran for roughly an hour, and we caught glimpses from the crowded doorways. The Frye’s website states that during the course of the exhibition the performances will number more than eighty, one each day for the duration of the show. Simply for effort, that merits critical inspection.
The installation for DITCH is more like an elaborate stage set than a sculpture on it’s own. Although it pulls no stops when it comes to color, pattern, scale and texture, DITCH feels somehow barren without its title character and her entourage, like an abandoned carnival. If one was to place it on the continuum of soft sculpture, it lacks both the aesthetic gravity of Mike Kelley’s stuffed animal orbs and the eerie anxiety churned up by Korean artist Gimhongsok’s mascot animal/text installations. It doesn’t reference a familiar past, a beloved stuffed animal or mascot, but uses these cuddly materials to create an abandoned colossus, a figure called MomDonna that slouches, decapitated and ruined on the glaring checkerboard floor. If you arrive post or pre performance, you will hear the sounds of clapping or laughter, possibly recorded performance sounds, echoing ghostlike through the space. According to museum literature, Shinatra and her performers are “rebirthed daily” in this environment, an event that forms the show’s most significant draw, and for good reason.
Shinatra is a character that operates in the tradition of drag- that pure expression of the most ostentatious and playful elements of character, skewering stodgy notions of gender and “taste”- a performance type once relegated to back rooms that has in the past few years burst joyfully into popular culture via the heady vehicle of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Kuehner as Shinatra in DITCH claims to embody what is an almost maternal instinct, asking “What happens when she can’t make everyone happy in the face of an oppressive existence? Is it better to stick it out or end it all? What about when she lets herself cross over into a state of abandon and resignation?”**
There is something familiar, touching and smothering about these questions and the installation itself. Like the love of an overprotective mother, it is equally sweet and off-putting. Every surface is soft, covered in fuzzy, garish, patterned fabrics. MomDonna feels almost like a warning, an Ozymandius-like fallen queen buried in the desert sands- she is wary of too much admiration. In this case, rather appropriately for a society whose attention span seems to shrink daily, the “the sands of time” begin to collect within seconds, like dust on a stuffed animal, so that every day the artist must literally return to this place for rejuvenation. So often in the past, great artists have played the hero and failed or succeeded based on their entry into history books or the canon (often signaled by inclusion in big museum shows like this one). But DITCH has me wondering if heroic, lasting art is the kind of art we need right now. What does a bleak political and societal moment like ours call for? Art that is collaborative, urgent, disjointed, and a little desperate for attention seems an obvious mirror. The more touching question of happiness could feel disingenuous as a goal here, but the response in terms of attendance seems to suggest that is urgent, too. In a moment when the very survival of marginalized people is threatened, what larger form of protest is there than to pursue happiness in the face of extinction?