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Seattle Art Fair
Overnight in Needle Town
A week ago I made an effort to get out of my neighborhood and go see some local art.
While I was chatting with a gallery attendant and snagging postcards (art gallery postcards are the best), I noticed a card advertising the Seattle Art Fair. It was next weekend! After I got home I conferred with my wife-slash-social coordinator and made plans to skip town. I booked a hotel and a train ticket.
Friday afternoon I snuck away from the computer, packed, wrapped up work, fed and walked the poodle, and called a car to take me to the train station.
I worried ride shares would be super busy and slow on a Friday night, so I called a little early. A nice man in a shiny Tesla glided up and took me to Union Station. I was about an hour early. I checked in for my train and went next door to Wilf’s. Wilf’s is an old fashioned red-leather-booth style place serving big slabs of meat and fish with live jazz on the side. It’s a throwback bolted on to Portland’s romantic old train station. They have a nice bar. Before I returned to Portland full-time I took the train from Tacoma to Portland for work. I would often have a drink before getting on the train. I figured I’d rekindle the tradition. The same bartender was working behind the counter.
The train was a little late arriving but they made up for lost time by rushing everyone aboard and bolting out of the station.
I watched one movie and a third of another, then dozed, and woke up as we were entering King Street Station.
The elevated roads on the north end of the station (which create tunnels for the trains to pass through downtown) and the now giant buildings nearby give the impression that the train station is deep underground.
As I left through the lobby, I found stairs up to the street level and walked to Pioneer Square to find my hotel. It was nearly midnight and there was a little lingering nightlife around the doors of bars as well as a few rough looking shirtless kids with bikes lurking on stairs. The air smelled of urine and weed. Familiar. I checked into the Best Western, let the snack machine steal a couple of dollars from me, then flopped on the bed.
In the morning I found the “continental breakfast” and scrounged some perfunctory coffee, boiled eggs, and fruit. Older tourists started filtering in. One annoying boomer took a plastic cup of of Jif brand peanut butter from the counter and presented it to his annoying boomer friend. He tried to convince him to take the peanut butter home with him for his dog. Is this boomer humor? Hard to say. Maybe it’s hard for this generation to turn down free peanut butter.
I checked out of the hotel to find a real coffee and write for a bit. Pioneer Square hosted a few leftovers from the night before. A man wobbly walked his bike through Occidental Square, stopping to vigorously vomit. He’s fine.
I walked to Elm Coffee. The sign on the door told me they weren’t open for another 10 minutes. A touristy couple was standing around impatiently consulting their phone. “The map says 8. Well the sign says 9.” I took a walk.
I got back in time for the door to open and fell in line behind the tourist couple. The wife held her phone up for the barista. “See? 8am.” Her husband stared at the floor. The rest of the patrons stared daggers into her back. The beleaguered barista patiently explained that, since the pandemic, they had been understaffed and that downtown was not as busy as it once was, but that he would bring it up to their manager. She ordered 6 coffees to take back to her hotel.
I ordered a latte and a chocolate croissant and settled in at the counter to begin this very newsletter. Hello!
After killing two hours, my coffee, my croissant, and a Sprite in a glass bottle, I packed up and walked to Lumen field. The Seattle Art fair was hosted in the convention center attached to the sports arena. I do love the idea of an art fair taking over a stadium–imagine 10,000 screaming fans await the unveiling of the next Sarah Sze piece.
To my surprise and delight the line to enter was pretty long and filled with what appeared to be normal people. I found the shady operation which claimed to check your bags for only $20. (Seriously Lumen Field? You’re going to forbid bags larger than a clutch purse, but not cash in with your own lockers?)
Since I paid for the privilege of checking my bag, I skipped the last 50 feet of the line (all bag check) and sailed through the doors to let the nice man scan the QR code on my phone.
Even though the doors had just opened, the fair felt busy. Saturday was the second day and gallerists were busy replacing sold work and rearranging their booths. I was surprised to discover each booth is built to house a little closet which blends into walls. Each booth had a little closet, and each little closet was crammed with art.
The exhibition floor was big, but not huge. The booths are laid out in a large grid in the center of the space, with more booths and a few special exhibits and pop-up cafés around the perimeter. I hung a left. My plan was to circumnavigate the exhibition space, then go down each row, and up each aisle. That was I should see almost everything at least once.
This enormous 6’ 2” tall yellow slab of aluminum by a Steinunn Thoradinsdottir was the first painting I stopped for. Titled “Counterparts”, the card reads “aluminum”–no other material. If you peer between the cracks in the yellow surface you can see the bare metal winking back at you. This painting had a brother, the same size, in deep red.
There was a lot of abstraction on display which was perfect. Just what I was in the mood for.
Before I rounded the corner I saw that Samsung had a strange “tiny home” exhibition. It was a mock tiny-house, full of Samsung electronics. A TV mounted on the outer wall played a repeating loop of movie clips. Samsung was showing off their series of wall-mounted TVs which look like an art frame and can be easily rotated 90º for a portrait display. I wonder if they have an army of electricians on call to install an outlet in the middle of your wall (to hide the cord). I found Samsung’s sponsorship a little odd at first, but it made more sense the more I thought about. Art is for the home. So is a nice TV. Why not have a TV which is nice to look at as well as watch.
There was also an obligatory car on display. Volvo? I think? I don’t actually remember. I guess art is a luxury good, so why not show off your luxury car. Lots of folks took an interest in the Samsung TV house. No one seemed to care about the car. Maybe this is just confirming my own biases, but who cares about cars anymore? Not that people are going to rush right out and buy an e-bike, but I think that lots of people would agree that cars are part of the problem. Cars don’t have the cultural importance they once held. Most folks walked right by the luxury cars and avoided eye contact with the reps working the booth. Poor guys.
Before I even made it one quarter of the way around the exhibition hall, I stumbled into my favorite paintings.
Zhang He is a Chinese Canadian, based in Toronto. His work is inspired by nature, and if I gerard the gallerist correctly, works from studies painted from life. It’s very hard to express how unbelievably thick the paint is.
The daubs of paint are sometimes inches thick. The paint under the surface may not fully dry for years. Artist’s oils are pigment and binders mixed with linseed oil. It has an earthy, natural smell. A little woody, a little acrid. For me the smell is concentrated nostalgia. These paintings smelled great.
These paintings are really striking. They almost resolve into recognizable images but then fall away at the last moment back into pure, gestural abstraction. The gallerist showed me a catalog of additional work. Zhang He is inspired by the abstract impressionists, of course, but also by a Canadian movement called the “automatistes”, which I need to go learn about now. We drew the obvious comparison to Monet’s later paintings but I think, maybe, that the similarity is circumstantial. Both painters start with nature, but end somewhere else.
I try to dress well for events like this. I want to be taken seriously and to be given deference when I lean in with my glasses off to stare at a brush stroke. But this gives off the impression that I’m the sort of cat ready to drop $16K on a painting. I need to learn to parlay that impression into a free glass of champagne.
The gallerist wanted to show me more, and more. I demurred. I hadn’t seen the rest of the exhibition yet. I made an escape to see the rest of the exhibition space.
I followed my plan around the space then found a sandwich and a beer. I sat over by the Samsung house, watching people go in and out while the Samsung reps worked the crowd. I realized I had hours before my train. Normally, I’d retreat back to a hotel room but I was sort of stuck.
This was an opportunity to take things real slow.
After lunch I meandered back through my original path, giving lots of time to anything that caught my eye. I wandered, got a cocktail, wandered some more. After I felt like I had completely soaked in everything I left to find a coffee shop.
I found a table near an outlet, charged my phone, and spent a little time organizing the photos I took over the course of the day. I lingered over my coffee and people-watched for a while. Downtown Seattle seemed to be full of easily confused people who have never left the suburbs.
I had time for a quick, early dinner before I jumped back on the train. I went to Taylor’s in Occidental Park where I got a dozen oysters, fries, and a martini. My martini was quickly followed by fries. The oysters arrived on a bed of chipped ice. The bartender told me a little story about which body of water each oyster came from, what its name was, its family history, and its SAT scores. My delicious oysters had an excellent pedigree. While I ate, a precocious gull perched hopefully outside the open window behind the bar. I wondered if I could throw him a french fry without attracting attention.
Fat, dumb, and happy, I slid off the barstool and said goodbye to the seagull then walked to the train station. King Street Station was bright and happy in the daylight, now smelling only of weed. The lobby was full of tourists on their way to Canada. I took a seat on a big wooden high-backed bench and waited for the train to Portland.