• Wednesday, November 02, 2016 9:05 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Wednesday, November 02, 2016 9:04 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    All This

    I’ve learned to be wary of women who walk up to me with a frown that is not mean, necessarily, but it’s not generous either. And while the downward curve of her mouth would seem perfectly normal had I just addressed, say, terrorism, my talk was about how we can better accept and support each other. Here she comes, I think, arms locked, question loaded. I’ve triggered something. She wants to take me down a notch, there is contempt in her eyes.

    “That was cute,” she said. 

    I just stared at her. And if my mind could have abandoned my feelings, it would have. I could feel a slow hiss seeping out of my pride, like when my bicycle tire rolls over a thorn. I’d just given a talk at the State Capitol for a group of visiting writers. Cute was not what I was going for. I thank God my skin has grown thick. 

    “So, where do you see yourself going with all this?” she said.

    “All this?” I said.

    “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

    I have a limited tolerance for this generic question. I never know if it’s a need to instruct or to compete, but the two always seem joined in people like this. They can’t seem to fathom that life can be less conventional and more entrepreneurial than they know it to be. 

    I wanted to say, this is my soul you are talking about, not an investment portfolio. What you are asking is beside the point. 

    What I did say was, “It hardly matters,” and, after a pause, “because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there is no brass ring five years from now, because there is no brass ring. ” It was one of the rare times when the words came to me without my having to wait until three in the morning. Mostly because of good advice I received from a colleague: “If you think everyone in the audience is going to be kind, you really need to consider doing something else. But if you stick with it, it’s good to have a few good comebacks up your sleeve. There is nothing more difficult than being clear and honest when you are taken aback.”

    Now, I wish I’d also said: “You know what? When I’m putting myself out there, I’m not the least bit concerned with five years from now, or even tomorrow. I have to be wholly in the present to be effective.”

    Today, I’m lucky to know people who’ve been at this business of writing and speaking much longer than I have, who get paid far more than I ever will. (I can still hope!) And I’m always surprised when, in the green room, they seem just as worried as I am that they will, to quote one, “flounder like a fish and sink like a stone.” 

    I once had so much to prove—to others, to myself—but not anymore. Now, I just want to be around people who find meaningful work reward enough, who have carved out careers with everything they have, raked their insides raw with the effort, who know what it takes to create a creative life, who understand that having work we love is “all this.” And much more. 

    Because the moment is all we have. And it’s everything, all at once.

    But there will always be the naysayer who wants to snatch it from us because, I suspect, they haven’t had one of their own to celebrate in far too long.

    Marylou Sanelli

    Sanelli’s works as a writer and literary speaker. Her latest book is A Woman Writing. She is speaking at Town Hall Seattle on April 27, 2017 at 7:30 pm. Visit her website at

  • Monday, July 11, 2016 5:13 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Nothing is as it seems in “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration” at the Schack Art Center in Everett. First, although Close has spent his entire career creating art based on close up frontal portraits, the exhibition is not about portraiture. Second, the subjects of these portraits, his friends, matter little: we see the same faces over and over frozen in time. Third, super-realism, Close’s 1980s “label” as a contemporary artist, also sends us in the wrong direction.  

    To understand and enjoy this show, start with the odd looking “jigsaw woodblock” hanging on the wall near the entrance. Each large piece is a different color. It provides an immediately understandable example of the imaginative approach to traditional techniques and processes — that is the real subject of the show. The jigsaw woodblock, together with other techniques, leads to a dizzying centrifugal woodcut portrait of the artist Lucas Samaras, a proof with fauve colors almost obliterating the face. Although Close begins with a photograph, he departs from photorealism in every imaginable direction. In the case of the jigsaw woodblock, he challenged master printmaker, Karl Hecksher, to create a print from a multicolored painting. Frequently the experiments in printmaking, as in the case of the jigsaw woodblock, come from master printmakers endeavoring to realize Close’s intense and original concepts. Thus the term “collaboration” in the title of the exhibition. 

    “Keith/Mezzotint,” 1972, Close’s first print, presents a seventies guy (big eyeglasses, hair sweeping over forehead), but the fragments of the portrait nearby reveal the intricacy of each detail of the face. When Close created this large print in the early 1970s, the old master medium of mezzotint was out of fashion. Even as an emerging young artist, Close always decided to take a challenging path, turning away from his facility as a painter, a colorist, and an abstract expressionist. In the late 1980s, when he was struck with paralysis, that state of mind saved his career and enabled him to continue to work in ever more complex experiments in media and process. 

    Chuck Close was born and grew up in Everett, Washington, but this exhibition marks the first time his works have been shown there. Created in 2003 in collaboration with curator Terrie Sultan, “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration,” has traveled the world. The Schack Art Center version spans from 1972–2014. 

    Included in the exhibition are almost 90 wood cuts, silkscreens, lithographs, paintings, tapestries as well as test charts, pulp paper samples, linoleum, and a brass “shim” to create one of my favorite prints, “Georgia,” 1984. Made of air dried handmade paper, its texture suggests an offbeat experiment, inspired, according to the curator, by an accident of chunks of pulp paper falling on the floor. Each segment of the metal shim is labeled with a number referring to the many toned gray scale in the print. 

    Every accident is an opportunity for Close. 

    The exhibition distinguishes European oil-based printmaking, used for “Lucas” and “ukiyo-e” water based prints. (I have always thought that the term ukiyo-e referred only to the subject of pleasure women in Japan). Yasu Shinbata took three years to create 120 color woodblocks for the print based on the oil portrait of “Emma” from 2002. You can see a few of the woodblocks in the exhibition. 


    The tapestries also amaze. Called Jacquard tapestries, they combine the automated loom, created in the late 18th century by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, with contemporary data and electronics to create stunningly subtle tapestries in gray scales as well as a five hundred color self portrait of the artist. 

    One of the joys of the exhibition is that it demands that we slow down and immerse ourselves in order to grasp its complexities. Simply looking closely at a single print, such as “Alex, Reduction Block,” 1993, which has a long backstory about the process, I found myself mesmerized by the fine details. In a way, they are a return to the abstraction that Close rejected so early in his career. 

    Be sure to go to the back of the last wall upstairs to see the woodburytype prints, a luscious black and white process that predates photography.

    Dive in and take your time. Explore. Chuck Close never stops exploring, and here is your opportunity to join him in that adventure.  

    Susan Noyes Platt, Ph.D.

    Susan Noyes Platt, Ph.D. is an art historian, art critic, curator, and activist. She continues to address politically engaged art on her blog

    “Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration” is on view through September 5, Monday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. Saturday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., and Sunday from noon to 5 P.M. at the Schack Art Center, located at 2921 Hoyt Avenue in Everett, Washington. For more information, visit

  • Monday, July 11, 2016 4:37 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    On a quick road trip from Bainbridge Island to Roslyn, I had the pleasure of visiting the studio and darkroom of Glenn Rudolph.  As we sat on the deck and drank almost too much coffee, we geeked-out on old school shoptalk; films and their processing, 50 year old medium format cameras, optical qualities of German lenses, and where all roads photographic lead, to the Light. 

    “I’ve always been fascinated by the transitional light of the Northwest climate. Combining this with real-life props makes the world an interesting place to work,” said Rudolph.

    His work is non-fiction, close in spirit to documentary film, but he conjures much more than the facts. “I feel like I am still part of the WPA photo project from the thirties, with a twist of Constable, Turner, Ryder, Blake, Giorgioni, Titian, and the entire history of Western painting mixed in.” 

    And then we moved from the deck to the workspace to look at the series of images headed to an exhibit at Gallery One in Ellensburg, “Are We There Yet?” 

    Rudolph began photographing the Milwaukee Railroad about 30 years ago. The Milwaukee was the last transcontinental railroad to reach the West Coast in 1908. The western division was torn out and sold for scrap in 1980. “I was curious where it ran. It had a distinct look with its trolley poles marching all the way to Harlowton, Montana.” 

    Describing his work, Gallery One Executive Director Monica Miller states “Using light as his primary medium, Glenn has captured the story of the disappearing railroad and the people and objects that coexist with the spaces left behind.”

    These days Rudolph is more likely to run into mountain bikers than hobos when he and his wife walk the grade near Cabin Creek or Beverly. The biker’s eyes widen when he gives them a short history of where they are riding. These incredible images are sure to open your eyes to that history too, making your next hike or road trip in the area that more meaningful.

    John Holmgren’s body of work uses rivers and man-made structures to highlight boundaries. Through his photo-montages we rediscover our relationship with the natural environment. We are taken on an expedition to somewhere, sometimes unidentifiable yet always defined.


    In collaboration for the past two years with Nick Conbere, “River Relations: A Beholder’s Share of the Columbia River Dams” investigates the presence and impact of hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River. They ask how aesthetic relationships can offer compelling ways to consider human construction that alter natural forces, re-shaping the flow of a river. 

    I asked about their influencesin this layered/collaborative approach. Holmgren stated, “We are inspired by a variety of past works that interpret landscape and experience, ranging from 19th century Romanticist paintings to documentary photography and historic cartography. Our collaboration documentation and interpretation aims to explore parallels among various places and histories along the river, suggesting patterns and relationships, and facilitating documentary, metaphor, and allegory in considering the presence of the dam.”

    Holmgren takes the photographs and Conbere adds the drawings, line, and language. This is a fascinating approach to multi-layered, narrative work. Two artists, collaborating in different mediums, on the same page.

    Not surprisingly when I asked him if he had any particular affinities with contemporary artists he said, “Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Klett,” while emphasizing that he was more influenced by writings about water and the sciences.  

    The works of Glenn Rudolph and John Holmgren/Nick Conbere give new ways to enter into the history and geology of our region.

    Upstairs in the Eveleth Green Gallery, a group show of travel photography includes local and international sites taken by photographers from this region including Nick Bosso, Styler Crady, Lynn Harrison, Chris Heard, Philippe Kim, Ona Solberg, and Laura Stanley. 

    Chris Heard and I had something in common, we both studied with Henry Wessel Jr. “He taught me so much about photography, yet encouraged me to do my own thing which was, and always has been, more landscape oriented,” said Heard. He kept his approach to the landscape very simple with 35mm black and white film, then interpreting what he sees through digital processing and printmaking, using fine art papers and glazes. “As I create my prints, I am more in mindof the drawings of Georges Seurat and traditions of mezzotint prints than I am in the process of traditional photographic imaging.” 

    A drive to Ellensburg to see “Are We There Yet?,” most likely is sure to lead to many more road trips with fresh eyes on Washington State history and geology.

    Joel Sackett

    Joel Sackett is a photographer and writer living and working in the Northwest. 

    “Are We There Yet?” is on view through July 30, Monday through Friday from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. Saturday from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M., and Sunday from noon to 4 P.M. at the Gallery One Visual Arts Center, located at 408 N Pearl Street in Ellensburg, Washington. For more information, visit 

  • Monday, July 11, 2016 4:13 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Monday, July 11, 2016 4:00 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)


    It would seem odd to write about something other than dance, since June is pretty much considered recital month all over the country. And not only because I dance. Dance studios provide something everyone wants: confidence. That’s all a studio is, really. A place to practice confidence. 

    And I thought I knew what I was going to say about dance before I sat down. It was only once I began that I could see who lies at the heart of my story: Lisa. 

    Lisa always did know how to get me talking.

    I remember the day Lisa found her way to my beginning class in Belltown. When it was over, she looked at me and said, You don’t recognize me do you?” 

    I looked at her more closely, studied her eyes, and there she was: the Lisa I knew in high school! 

    “I figure I can talk about losing weight all I want, but maybe it’s time to actually do something about it. But I was afraid to come to a dance class. Because, well, look at me.”

    “You just need to get back in shape, it won’t take long.”

    “I don’t know,” she rolled her eyes. “You have the quintessential dancer body. I hate you.” 

    That’s when I knew we’d be friends again. My next thought was how no one had ever called me a quintessential anything before. And that I must be doing a pretty good job at hiding all of my insecurities.

    I did sneak a sidelong glance of her body. Something I hadn’t seen in class came into focus, a dancer’s body, rusty, yes, but visible…underneath the Lycra. I imagined her concentration narrowing before absolutely killing a pirouette. 

    I wanted to say as much. But I decided to wait a few classes, see if she stuck it out. 

    Wait! My insides protested. Why hold back? My mother was skimpy with compliments. If someone gave me one she’d say something like “it’s going to swell her head to the size of a watermelon.” 

    But one sincere compliment can do wonders for a student’s confidence. 

    Lisa looked down at her legs. “I don’t think wearing black hides the pounds as much as people think.”

    “Do you mind if I ask you something? Did you ever study ballet?”

    “How can you tell? I mean, by the looks of me now.”

    “I can see it, it’s there. Beautifully so.”

    She scooted a little closer, I took ballet for nine years before I became a veterinarian.”

    “I knew it!”

    “But I’ve gained, like, a hundred pounds since then. It’s going to be an upward battle.”

    “It’s a battle you can win.”

    She stood up, stretched her arms over her head, and I noticed that she’d appeared taller to me than she really was. Maybe because she is one of those people who make you feel like only your best self will do. 

    I thought how her work had become helping animals and mine helping people to dance, and how we both must have learned at a young age how much easier getting through life would be if we tried to make things better for others along the way.

    She didn’t say anything for a moment. I didn’t either. But we were both clearly, openly there. 

    Marylou Sanelli

    Marylou Sanelli works as a writer, speaker, and dance teacher. Her newest book is 

    A Woman Writing. For more information visit

  • Tuesday, May 03, 2016 10:54 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Aztlán, the mythical place of origin of the Aztec people of Mexico became a political “nation” at the height of the Chicano movement in the 1960s. As an act of defiance, Chicanismo took a term of denigration and declared instead the proud identity of Mexicans in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, and Nevada, lands that the U.S. took from Mexico in 1848. But the term and “el Movimiento” ignored activist Latina/os outside the Southwest.  

    “Beyond Aztlán” refutes that limitation as well as challenging any essentialist “Chicano” identity. Curator Professor Lauro H. Flores, Director of Ethnic American Studies at the University of Washington points out that Spanish artists accompanied the earliest explorers to the Northwest in the late 18th century, an area originally known at Nueva Galicia. Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy created 200 drawings on an expedition with Botanist/explorer José Mariano Moziño. A few facsimiles of his detailed work are included in this exhibition. 

    The exhibition then leaps forward to the freely painted abstract expressionist paintings by Boyer Gonzalez Jr., chair of the School of Art at the University of Washington from 1954 to 1979. Alfredo Arreguín took classes with Boyer, but turned in a different direction, based on his exposure to Japanese art and his love of the complex natural world of the jungle. Arreguín immerses portraits and animals in intricate layers of color and pattern. “Migration,” his newest work, incorporates salmon flying through the sea as a wall of waves (inspired by Hokusai) descends on them. Arreguín might be offering a metaphor for the current challenges of human migration. Another variant of abstraction by Fulgencio Lazo links geometric abstraction with indigenous symbolism.  His palette of oranges, reds, and blue/greens invokes the warmth of his native Oaxaca where he lives part of the year. 

    Among the realist artists, ardently feminist and anti-capitalist Cecilia Alvarez fills her portraits with specific but, cloaked, references. “La Rumbera Mayor,” the artist explains, “speaks of the mixing of the races/cultures creating a power image of a woman of color. Also, she is the symbol of creating healing music”. 

    The tight details in Alvarez’s paintings starkly contrast to the soft edges in the paintings of Jesús Guillén. After a full day of backbreaking work in the fields, he sympathetically painted representations of farmworkers. One of his daughters Angelica Guillén organized a two night poetry festival “¡Xicanismo Afire!” that accompanied the opening of the art exhibit. Particularly poems like those of Ramon Ledesma, who grew up as a migrant worker, resonated with the visual art. 

    Alma R. Gómez’s large paintings celebrate her family with indigenous and natural symbolism in “Las Tortolitas del Rio Grande” and with matter of fact everyday details in “Los Compadres.” As in Gómez’s paintings, many poets emphasized the crucial importance of family for farmworkers.  

    In another approach to realism, Daniel DeSiga’s “Cultivando,” places us on the ground looking up at the farmworker, bathed in a halo-like blazing sun, as his hoe thrusts toward us.  

    Other artists affiliate with Surrealism. Arturo Artorez’s undecipherable images provoke discomfort; José Luis Rodriguez Guerra’s dark palette and dramatic lighting evoke a supernatural world; and the pencil drawings by Jesús Mena Amaya suggest the disjunctions of automatic drawing. 

    Two photographers experiment with their media. Paul Berger plays with avant-garde irony in his “Double RR Puppet” (referring to Ronald Reagan) and Daniel Carrillo explores nineteenth century techniques like daguerreotype and ambrotype. 

    Finally, three sculptors, spanning several decades, range from humorous to mysterious. Rubén Trejo’s “Cheech” has a bomb for a face (suggesting the comedian’s explosive personality). In contrast, “La Llorona,” (The Weeping Woman), represents an iconic Mexican figure of a mother crying for her lost children. The twisting green metal and painted wood combines a modernist base with a jalapeño-like body and a hot red pepper head that emphasizes her agony. Cast modified cement sculpture by Mark Calderon suggests deep poignancy in “Regalis,” a child’s torso facing the wall. The youngest artist in the exhibition, George Rodriguez creates stoneware sculptures that combine humor, realism, kitsch, history, the past, and the future.

    In short, this group exhibition brings together some of the many dynamic artists among contemporary Mexican/Chicana/o art in the Northwest. It reveals the diversity in life experiences as well as in style, media, background, training, and expression within the limiting label “Chicano” or “Mexicano.” The last museum exhibition of “Chicano” art in the Northwest was over 30 years ago. Let us hope that “Beyond Azteca” stimulates new exhibitions of these exciting artists sooner than that.  

    Susan Noyes Platt, Ph.D.

    Susan Noyes Platt, Ph.D., art historian, art critic, curator, and activist. She continues to address politically engaged art on her blog As a curator, her focus is art about immigration, migration, and detention.

    “Beyond Aztlán: Mexican and Chicana/o Artists in the Pacific Northwest” is on view through June 12, Sunday and Monday from noon to 5 P.M. and Tuesday through Saturday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. at the Museum of Northwest Art, located at 121 South First Street in La Conner, Washington. For more information, visit

  • Tuesday, May 03, 2016 10:19 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Lucky Charms

    The beauty of a lucky charm is that it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else. 

    Mine include shells and a stone with the word INSPIRE inscribed. 

    The shells recall the year I taught dance throughout the Caribbean and how afraid I was at times. “But it’s good to be afraid,” they remind, “you pay closer attention when you’re afraid.” 

    The stone is from a friend who said I inspired her daughter, Rose. “Really?” I said, “Because I remember thinking you wouldn’t like what I had to say.” 

    Why did I say it anyway? For the same reason I keep my shells close, to remind me how fear is a huge part of it. 

    And by “it” I mean my work, the most essential part of my life. 

    But saying this is what I was afraid of. It would have been safer to say not that my work is the most essential part, but second to love, family, the kind of thing people say all the time. 

    I wondered, too, if I should have directed Rose toward a higher paying career to help drive the economy. But my driving advice is more: inch along until you find the work you really want to do.

    You may be thinking, “What, are you kidding me? That won’t pay the bills.” 

    But I’ve come to believe that money is overrated. Too little is horrible, but less is not the end of the world. I don’t know how much of this insight comes from being a woman or an artist, or both, but I can’t stop trying to figure out the conflict between what we really want and what we’re told we should want. And why it so often keeps us from pursuing our dreams.

    I told Rose that if we have the courage to do what we love, it’s our best career choice. But in order to continue, most of us can’t fall prey to owning all the things people buy to try and ensure their happiness.

    After college, I worked as a waitress…until I threw a drink at a patron who said an inappropriate thing with his hand on my behind. I’m glad I was fired. Because the money was good. I might have stayed too long and not got on with my dream of opening a dance studio. 

    Well, obviously dance studios don’t pay all that well, either. So I found an affordable town to move to. My life moved on. And so did Rose’s.

    Rose dreamed of becoming a writer. But she went to work for the huge, thrusting, economy-driven tech world dedicated to making more and more stuff we don’t need. The last time I heard from her? February 2014. She gave reasons why she had no time to write. 

    So often I’ve wondered what would have happened if she’d kept at it? If she’d allowed herself to go without mortgaging a condo and all the trendy furniture to fill it?

    I know how delicate a balance between passion and a lofty paycheck is. I also know how many well-paid people I meet who can’t remember the last time they felt excited about their work.

    Recently I came across a display of stones like mine. And I was thrilled to find my favorite noun inscribed: PERSISTENCE.

    I lost touch with Rose. 

    But I keep my eye out for that book she always wanted to write.

    Mary Lou Sanelli

    Mary Lou Sanelli works as a writer and literary speaker. Her latest book is A Woman Writing. For more information visit

  • Tuesday, May 03, 2016 6:21 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

  • Thursday, March 03, 2016 2:13 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

    Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

    Michael Jackson looks down at us from his seat on a magnificent stallion in the first gallery of the Seattle Art Museum’s stunning exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic.” Looking closer we see subtle references to Jackson’s famously changing color: from rear to head, the horse actually changes color from brown to white and, in the sky, a white and a brown putto place a garland on his head. Wiley actually met with Jackson and the singer chose the Rubens equestrian portrait of Philip II of Spain as the basis for his portrait (in the original the horse is brown and includes voluptuous women with a globe in the sky). Wiley titled his painting “Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II of Spain (Michael Jackson),” making his provocative purpose clear.  The 16th -17th centuries were the height of colonization and the slave trade, so placing Michael Jackson in the seat of power of that time  provides an intense contradiction and brilliant upending of history.

    Kehinde Wiley characterizes black masculinity in our contemporary media culture as “structured, manufactured and consumed” to create a “conspicuous fraud.” He repositions black men and women from their traditional role in “grand manner” paintings as slaves or servants or in our media as victims or perpetrators of violence. In Kehinde Wiley’s paintings black people become heroes and saints. Most of his models are ordinary people, rather than celebrities, making the transformation all the more dramatic and pointed.

    He embeds this driving purpose in painting and sculpture that overwhelms us with beauty, scale, and technical virtuosity. As he acknowledges the risk of aesthetics obscuring meaning, he encourages us to look beyond our first glance to the many understated jokes and surprises in the details of the work.

    The artist jump shifts from one historical format to another, keeping us dazzled by his references, but disrupted by his reinterpretations.

    Among the portraits, “Mugshot Study” 2006, based on a wanted poster the artist found in the street, stands out as a point of departure and foundation for the more elaborate works. Wiley here simply enhances a traditional mugshot, humanizing the young man with classical chiaroscuro. Under the portrait we see the assigned criminal number of the young man, almost invisible in white on white—a reference to who gave him the number and his status in a society that incarcerates millions of black men. 

    A roomful of “Religious Subjects” glow with gold leaf on small private altars, echoing the format of Hans Memling’s fifteenth century portraits of Flemish merchants. Here contemporary young black men hold emblems of power, their names declaring their identity.

    Wiley began his project by finding volunteers in the streets of Harlem, what he calls “street casting,” although he presents only beautiful people (he also found models at a casting studio). Unlike for example, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres’s plaster portraits of ordinary people in the barrio, Wiley’s focus is on physical beauty, even perfection, set in precisely quoted historical formats.  If we are going to consume black men, he suggests, let us consume them as a supremely special experience based on elite status, rather than as criminals or victims or sports stars. 

    As we are bathed in the transparent colors of a room full of stained glass windows, beautiful black men as saints interrupt our expectations of religious clichés.  These windows were created by skilled German artisans who have inherited the secrets of the centuries—old techniques of medieval stained glass windows, a format normally reserved for dead white saints.

    Nearby, an alcove of small bronze portraits in the classical Jean Houdon style of idealized head truncated on a pedestal, features African and African Americans. Again interrupting an easy identification with an historical reference, the model for “Cameroon Study” had a shoe on his head. According to the artist, he based it on a shoe seller who balanced a shoe on his head as a way to advertise his wares. Such a surprise is vintage Wiley: a classical format tilts in a new direction.

    Michael Jackson’s equestrian portrait belongs to the theme “Symbols of Power.” As a partner to that, Wiley created “An Economy of Grace,” portraits of women. Again he found random women to participate, but in this case they were elaborately adorned in Givenchy gowns, with sensational hair arrangements by the celebrity hair stylist Dee Trannybear. By far my favorite of the women’s portraits was “Judith and Holofernes” in which an imposing black Judith holds the white head of Holofernes (also a women) against a lush flower background. Wiley’s flower backgrounds have a way of wending their way in front of the figure, and most of them have metaphorical significance.

    Aside from the triple bronze portrait “Bound,” of three women with huge braided hair intertwined, most of these portraits of women do not critique colonialism and its grand manner presumptions. Black women do not carry the same position as black men in our public media—we have Oprah for example. We think of black women as powerful, rather than as victims, as bearers of culture and home, as resistors to oppression, as fighters. Celebrity black fashion models date back several decades and Wiley’s insistence on lavish designer gowns and hair seemed to sit in that tradition, although perhaps the exaggeration of the hair and dress was itself a type of critique because it endowed these women as royalty not just objects of beauty.

    Wiley’s painting and sculpture overwhelm us with their scale and meticulous detail (he works with a team in China these days). He floods us with sensory overload, then provokes us with the unexpected at every turn.  

    Susan Noye Platt, Ph.D
    Susan Noyes Platt, Ph.D., art historian, art critic, curator, activist, published “Art and Politics Now, Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis” in 2011 emphasizing activist artists in the first ten years of the 21st century. She continues to address politically engaged art on her blog As a curator, her focus is art about immigration, migration, and detention.

    “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is on view until May 8, Wednesday through Sunday at the Seattle Art Museum, located at 1300 First Avenue in Seattle, Washington. For more information, visit

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