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Friday, August 31, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Is it art? Weather vanes, Indian quilts and canned peaches attempt an answer

Special to The Seattle Times

This year's visual arts at Bumbershoot concentrate on minorities, outsider artists, marginal cultures, folk artists and Third World photographers. These are going to be some of the major parties involved in the art of our current century of global trade and global culture. It's great to see such a cross-section at Bumbershoot.

Starting within the fringes of the United States, "Across the Miles: Discovering Folk Art in America" (Shaw Room) is the best of the batch, a museum-quality survey of some of America's top folk artists.

What is folk art? It is art usually made by uneducated or untutored people, in cities or rural settings. Within such parameters, the past two decades have seen the growth of an enormous folk-art market, much of which was fueled by creations (like W.C. Rice's here) ripped right from people's front yards where much of it probably looked a lot better.

Bumbershoot visual arts

Noon-8 p.m. daily through Sept. 3, Northwest Court Rooms, Seattle Center; free with admission to Bumbershoot, 206-281-8111 or www.bumbershoot.org.
Other folk artists today seem to be already creating for a tourist market (or dealers, such as Garde Rail Gallery, who organized the show). There are lots of brightly colored, figurative works, windmills, weather vanes, painted tin cutouts and lots of found-object shadow boxes. However, there are also quite a few fascinating small paintings, including those by Seattle's own Ree Brown, who is frequently shown in folk-art trade fairs in New York and elsewhere.

"Shadows of Bhuj" (Orcas Room) is a confused exhibit. Part memorial for the earthquake in Bhuj, India, part Indian quilt show, and part showcase for Pamela Lee's amateurish found-object shadow boxes, this small clutch of stuff should either have been expanded into something coherent or dropped altogether.

When do found objects and collectibles become art? It's hard to tell with a lot of this year's Bumbershoot art. "Art Swap" (Lopez Room) is a double-barreled effort to explain art barters between artists, exchanges of labor for art, and artists' collections of one another's works. First, there are the loans from collectors who pride themselves on never having paid for a work of art. These include a beautiful mural of the interior of the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square done by Jeff Mihalyo for the owners; at 16 feet wide, it must have paid for a lot of beer.

More interestingly, the artists' trades include mostly small works that seem minor tokens of friendship rather than serious artistic statements. Besides established artists such as Lisa Buchanan and Jeffrey Simmons, don't miss Nicola Vruwink's exquisite little painting made of red Kool-Aid. Cartoonist Ellen Forney's "Gold Crown" is a painting she did for her dentist.

Photography dominates the art world today, so two exhibits, "Within/Without: Contemporary Photos of Cuba" (Olympic Room) and "Richard Miller: Myths of Masculinity" (Orcas Room), tell us much about the medium's diverse and limitless potential. Miller's staged still-lifes of men's clothing (recently seen in New York) satirize the military, medical, legal and musical professions, among others. "Ladies' Man" will bring a smile to male and female Bumbershooters.

The photographs of Cuba (half by Cubans, half by Americans) will draw attention for different reasons. The Americans photographing Cuba tend to glamorize dreadful, deteriorating conditions in Cuba. Peeling paint, horrible rundown slums and even makeshift maternity clinics lovingly picture (usually in brilliant color) some of Cuba's worst problems. Still, Erin Cordry's black-and-white of an old woman smoking a giant cigar is hilarious.

By comparison, the Cubans are grim and subtle, like subversive dissidents. Cristóbal Herrera shows a television screen with Castro's ubiquitous face in a ragged bicycle repair shop. Pedro Abascal's piles of shrouded corpses, coffins and funeral parlor scenes from his "Epitaph" series must be symbolic. Raul Canibano suggests terrible deprivations in his photographs of child laborers in the sugarcane fields.

"Obsessions" (Rainier Room) is a big grab bag of more collectibles and collectors. Curator (non-curator?) Graham Graham asked artists to bring in whatever obsessions they wished. The results are one of the most confusing Bumbershoot art shows ever. But, wait, it isn't even art, so why worry? Revel in the canned-peaches collection of novelist and former Seattle Times art critic Tom Robbins. Stare in wonder at the operative electric Mixmasters owned by glass sculptor Ginny Ruffner. Although people often enjoy seeing what others collect, "Obsessions" is an aimless, amorphous assembly. The Western Washington State Fair in Puyallup does this kind of thing much better.

Better to zigzag back to the punchy Cuban photography and decide whether it's all art or propaganda, or take in Garde Rail Gallery's visiting folk artists, or even the big uneven "Art Swap." Collectors or collectibles, found art or handmade art, there's plenty in this year's Bumbershoot art shows to look at and discuss, let alone laugh at and enjoy.

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