Monday, November 10, 2008

Maps of the World

On the advice of the excellent mostly-art blog Best Of, we checked out the current show at Vermillion: Ryan Molenkamp's The San Juans. It's very good—it evokes the otherworldly quality of the San Juan Islands without being overly reverential or literal.

There's something about Molenkamp's technique that reminds me of a cross between this Peter Doig painting, which I clipped out of Harper's magazine long ago and look at all the time…

…and the drawings of BMX tracks they used to have in Bicycle Motocross Action magazine when I was a kid, where they had these hatch marks showing the angle and elevation of the berms:

Also showing right now is Cheryl Gilge's Spatial Transgressions series.

The two shows kind of bleed together, both being topography-related, and I think both artists' work is good enough that it might have been better to give them each their own exhibition. But no matter really – there's lots of interesting things to look at either way. I recommend checking it out and then having some drinks and delicious snacky foods in Vermillion's lovely back bar room while you're at it. More info and images at

The next day we went to Punch Gallery (on Prefontaine just South of Yesler), which is currently showing Justin Colt Beckman's Honky Tonk.

The Ellensburg-based artist has transformed a modern space into a convincing honky-tonk bar, complete with sawdust on the floor, cans of peanuts in shells, and a metal tub of Busch beer on ice, which he offered us as we walked in. "The show's about to begin," he told us. "Grab a bench."

For the show, Beckman appears on stage in video-projection form, lip-synching classic country songs ("There's a tear in my beer / 'cause I'm crying for you deer / you were on my lonely mind") to an enthusiastic audience (that would be us, plus an applause track). You might think it was one of those one-man show kind of deals where you're not sure when it's okay to leave, but you would be wrong – the whole thing was oddly captivating and we stayed right up through the encore-with-banjo.

Honky Tonk is a really unusual idea, executed just about perfectly. The thing is, a lot of actual bars have adopted this kind of decorative scheme in real life, and it would have been easy for Beckman to simply echo that explosion of nostalgia (which actually does often succeed in being relaxing, fun, etc.—who doesn't like to kick back and listen to tunes in the comfort of old stuff while they drink some beers?) Instead, Honky Tonk is a thought-provoking meditation on city vs. country, high-tech vs. digital, and real vs. not real. In other words, it goes beyond the decorative surface appeal and addresses the impulse behind it…or something. I enjoyed the gallery's description of the show, so maybe it's best if I re-print it here in full and leave it at that:

Inspired by music variety shows, karaoke, and childhood lip-sync concerts, Justin Colt Beckman’s Honky Tonk transforms PUNCH Gallery into a full-scale country bar for three weeks during the month of November. Combining video projection and sound, with found materials he's dragging over from rural Washington, Beckman continues his investigation into the urban/rural dichotomy and its associated stereotypes as he explores the act of country music stardom vicariously through his art-making.

In their many manifestations, the terms hillbilly, redneck, and white trash have been used in national media representations and by Americans within and outside rural areas to both uphold and challenge the dominant trends of contemporary American life, including urbanization, the ever-expanding centrality of technology, and the resulting routinization of American life. While often used to define the benefits of advanced civilization through negative counterexample, these terms have also been used to question the legitimacy of modernity and progress. Whatever. We just want to drink some cold beer, throw our peanut shells on the floor, and watch Beckman sing a few of his favorite country tunes.

Cheers to that. I would have happily stayed for another, but we had places to be. The show is up through November 22nd; more info at

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