the common S E N S E, Seattle

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During my research visits to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, I swung into the galleries to see the current  museum-wide installation by Ann Hamilton.  This new work pulls together a number of threads.  Among them, Hamilton explores how the sensation of touch plays out across a range of ideas and experiences.  Influenced by the University (where’s she’s currently artist-in-residence) and its natural history collections, Hamilton pays close attention to animals and their furs.

In several galleries, she hung reams of newsprintted animal images, which exhibit viewers are invited to peel down as keepsakes.  The display calls to mind the older chambers of wonders model, where art and natural collections co-existed.

In the museum’s basement, Hamilton approached this same theme from a different lens, creating linen-walled cubes, each containing furs in glass cases.  Handwritten manila cards tied to each cube echo specimen cards, and more potently, morgues.

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A second major thread Hamilton explores here is the longtime tradition of the common book.  Aware of the way this exhibit draws together and links ideas, Hamilton creates a meta experience of idea collecting within her installation.  Exhibit visitors collect not only collect the newsprint animals from the gallery walls, but also quotes on touch that are placed throughout the exhibit.

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Amid all that collecting, Hamilton asks her viewers to contribute to the exhibit as well by leaving an ethereal photograph of themselves to be added to the installation.  “An exhibition is a form of exchange, and like a conversation it is organic,” Hamilton writes.  “It is changed by each person who enters and whose acts of taking and giving become the life of the project.”

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Hamilton is lyrical and astute in her written descriptions of this project.  And there’s a lot of interpretive text in this exhibit, a lot of conceptual frameworks to work though.  The choice to include extensive signage may have to do with the exhibit’s home at a university art museum where the work is meant to be engaged with repeatedly over a longer timeframe — and to become a part of a larger pedagogical discourse.

At times, though, I wish she had offered less explanation of the rich concepts she’s explored.  I would have liked to let these disparate threads coallese more organically, to allow the exhibit to work through inference more.  The work is strong enough for Hamilton to trust in its experiential rhythm.

You also get the sense, though, of an artist exploring an assortment of new elements in her work and inviting us into the recesses of creative process.  The sense that she’s gathering together ideas that are still more divergent than synthesized — and that this experimentation ought not cohere too soon.

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