I’m in need of some healing. Recently, my cat, who suffered from late-stage kidney disease, was euthanized, and I also commemorated the one-year anniversary of my sister’s death from ALS. I have a bad cold. It seemed an apt time to view the portraiture exhibit “Negative Capability: The Artist as Healer,” curated by the Seattle artist Saundra Fleming, at Gallery 110 in Pioneer Square.
“Negative capability” was a term used by the poet John Keats in an 1817 letter to his brothers. Keats believed artists such as Shakespeare can exist in uncertainty, without logic, searching their depths with humility to gain understanding. From the confusion and pain, beauty can dawn. The 15 artists in Gallery 110’s show illustrate this idea in different ways, based on their own life experiences.
In her portraits, Lynette Charters upends the tradition of women painted for the male gaze. Charter’s acrylic painting “Fragonard’s Muse Holding Two Puppies,” shares similarities with its inspiration, Rococo painter Fragonard’s “Young Girl Holding Two Puppies.” Both paintings show a female in an off-the-shoulder white blouse with a blue hair ribbon trailing from her hair. Each figure cradles puppies resembling human babies. But, while Fragonard’s subject gazes sweetly at the viewer, her breasts exposed, Charters’ girl has wood instead of flesh, her eyes expressionless pinholes and two knotholes standing in for breasts.
“Klimt’s The Family’s Muse,” by Charters, also surprises. The opulent background of gold leaf and gold coins makes viewers expect the eroticism of Klimt’s “Golden Phase” paintings. Instead, the passion is between a muscular man and an infant, while the woman, made of wood, can’t participate.
Carol Adelman Kennedy, too, examines gender roles in some of their self-portraits. In one, Kennedy wears a neck ruff like Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Virgin,” and also as a man in “Portrait of the Artist as a Man (after Titian).” In this one inspired by Renaissance artist Titian, Kennedy gazes candidly out of the canvas, shades of red and orange clashing together on their face. Kennedy’s portraits are an exploration of the different selves that can inhabit one body.
George Brandt describes art as a journey undergone for many years. Rather than being self-portraits, his work is a triptych: The left side has a bird and an eye, while the right is made up of a black-and-white photo of a child inside a six-pointed star. In the middle, a photograph is smeared with blood, and there are nails around the borders and bits of hair; uneasy hints of violence. Yet butterflies, symbols of transformation and hope, also surround the photo. Being the child of Holocaust survivors informs Brandt’s voyage into the depths of the self.
K Taka’s photograph “Connecting (Eagle)” is also about heritage. In the image, the artist, descended from the Makah Tribe, has an eagle feather obscuring one eye. Native Americans once lived in harmony with the earth, but now our planet reflects our increasing detachment from nature. Taka points out that the ability to connect globally does not necessarily translate into deeper personal relationships.
Lack of family can also inspire a search within. In “Orphan,” Clifton Peacock’s figure has murky opaque paint covering most of the face, with minimal openings letting in bits of light. It is like a fog on a window into which a child has traced a representation of a face. Being unable to know where you come from can make it a struggle to understand yourself fully. The background of a cloudless blue sky perhaps offers hope of future clarity.
Another exploration of family life comes from Jeffrey Heiman’s portrait, “Paradise on Fire.” In this large oil painting on canvas, the mundane is juxtaposed with the uncanny. Two men smile at each other on the carpet of a charming home, seemingly a picture of domestic bliss. The interior of the house is cheerily furnished in shades of yellow. But many aspects are incongruous. One man is fully clothed while the other is completely naked. The indoors and outdoors uneasily commingle; a patch of brown-eyed Susan flowers and a bush grow in opposite corners of the living room, and the top of the house is missing. There is a cat figurine sitting on the ground, but also a third man standing in front of the cozy fireplace. The man’s head is covered by an oversized bird mask, which has rays jutting out from it like the sun. What is happening here, inside the American Dream?
Alexis Ortiz brings some lightheartedness to the exhibit. “My Brother and I (2 hares)” consists of a tall chair with a stuffed bunny with a red ribbon around its neck sitting on top; underneath, another bunny is attached upside down, a ribbon falling over its face. Close relationships with shared experiences can often serve as slightly mismatched mirrors. Stacks of clay plates depicting knees and feet, titled “My Existential Problem Areas,” surround the chair. Eyes with nails for lashes (“Vantages”) survey the reversed bunnies and the disassembled self.
This is the second exhibit I’ve viewed at Gallery 110, and both times I’ve gained insight not only while viewing the exhibitions but during my walk from the gallery to the light rail station. “Negative Capability” shows the value of delving inside your own psyche to precipitate understanding and growth. In a sense, this is a luxury, of secondary importance when your basic needs are not met. There are many examples of people lacking basic needs in Pioneer Square.
On my short walk, a woman sits on a nest of newspapers in front of the Quintessa Building on Yesler. She rocks back and forth, speaking continually in words I can’t understand. An elderly person in a wheelchair cruises down the hill, seeming slightly out of control. Holding a plastic cup, a frail man politely asks me if I have a dollar. Automatically, I say no but then realize I’m refusing only to stay insulated from anything difficult. The man causes discomfort, yet anyone’s life has the possibility of becoming unmoored without warning. The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme climate events are teaching us this. Dropping four quarters into his cup doesn’t change anything, but perhaps an understanding passes between us and perhaps a tiny bit of healing happens.
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.