Tavares Strachan: Always, Sometimes, Never at Frye Art Museum

Review

Tavares Strachan: Always, Sometimes, Never at Frye Art Museum

By Catherine Nueva España February 13, 2018

In 1995, a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was disappeared into Chinese custody after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. In his place, the Chinese government recognized Gyaltsen Norbu as the Panchen Lama, to the protests of many Tibetans. Setting aside questions of legitimacy and politics, this moment in history, for Tavares Strachan, is also a moment to consider the nature of truth. Who gets to decide what is true? Is the truth objective or subjective? Strachan, who was born and raised in the Bahamas and received his formal artistic education in the United States, is aware that the colonial history of the Bahamas and his Western education have determined much of what he knows. Unsatisfied with what the traditional Western canon has documented as true and important, Strachan does his own extensive research into those histories. In doing so, he demonstrates the ways in which the “official” version of a historical moment can obscure lesser-known stories and histories—which, subsequently, have become the subjects of his multimedia works.

Tavares Strachan. Seated Panchen Lama, 2011; pyrex, mineral oil, acrylic; installation view. Photo: Mark Woods.

Tavares Strachan: Always, Sometimes, Never, curated by Erica Barrish and Tavares Strachan for Frye Art Museum in Seattle, is an exhibition containing such works. Seated Panchen Lama (2011) comprises a Pyrex sculpture of the cardiovascular system of the Panchen Lama, scaled to the size of an adolescent. This human-scale sculpture is immersed in a forty-inch high glass tank of mineral oil, lit from below. While the sculpture’s seated position gives the Panchen Lama a certain measure of gravity, the skillful juxtaposition of glass and oil (which have the same refractive index for light passing through) renders him visible from certain angles and invisible from others. In this sculptural telling of the 1995 story, Strachan demonstrates the boy’s sudden disappearance and the ways in which an “official” documenter of history—the government—can present a new truth, a new story.

The distance between what we know and what is authoritatively presented as the truth is also illustrated in the twenty-six-panel piece A Children’s History of Invisibility (2017). The panels, each measuring approximately three by two feet, take up several galleries within the Frye, and are installed at a comfortable height and encased in acrylic frames to encourage close reading. Each panel, modeled after the Encyclopedia Britannica, includes three columns of dense text printed on matte Moab paper, overlaid with illustrations, collages, and images, like medieval or Renaissance manuscripts. Each panel represents one letter of the alphabet and chronicles the people, places, and concepts that history has rendered apocryphal, invisible, or disappeared. The letter “C” panel asks us to remember the legacy of Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, the first Black candidate for a major party's nomination for president of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The letter “A” panel claims the sovereignty of the language, culture, and personhood of the Ainu people, who have been declared by others, at various times in history, to be Japanese or Russian. Strachan reminds us of how recorded history discriminates; while some narratives are pushed forward, others are elided, repurposed, or made to disappear altogether. We are also reminded that fiction, news, legend, and myth are all bound up together—sometimes in the same book—which requires our discernment and reflection. Truth is always, sometimes, never stranger than fiction.

Tavares Strachan. A Children’s History of Invisibility (detail), 2017; pigment, collage, vinyl, on matte Moab paper, mounted on Sintra, encased in acrylic. Photo: Mark Woods.

Further, A Children’s History is a reminder that the yearning to know more can be both pleasurable and frustrating. While each panel contains long, dense columns of compelling text about kitsune, Invisible Cities, or the Utah Lake sculpin, the information is partially or fully obscured by the strategic placement of collages, images, numbers, and additional layers of material. Each panel tantalizes and represses. The most prominent obstruction is the large alphabet letter on the lower third of each panel, rendered in an ornamental typeface that recalls early European encyclopedias and illustrations. In our quest to know more, we come up against a (Western) canon that allows some, but not all, information to be accessed.

Tavares Strachan: Always, Sometimes, Never is on view at Frye Art Museum in Seattle through April 15, 2018.

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