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Friday, June 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

A tea party, and much more, at revitalized BAM

Seattle Times art critic

Bellevue Arts Museum review


"The Artful Teapot: 20th Century Expression from the Kamm Collection," Saturday-Oct. 2.

"TEAlicious: A Global Infusion," Saturday-Sept. 18.

"The Artist Responds: Albert Paley and Art Nouveau," Saturday-Sept. 25.

"Taking Shape: Pilchuck Glass School in the '70s," Saturday-Jan. 29.

10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5: 30 p.m. Sundays, extended hours until 9 p.m. Fridays at the Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; $7 adults, $5 seniors, members and children under 6 free (425-519-0770 or www.bellevuearts.org).

It's been a long time coming, but the Bellevue Arts Museum has rallied its forces and tomorrow reopens to the public with a jazzed-up interior and four exhibitions that signal the museum's updated mission as a showplace for crafts and design.

The place has a livelier feel to it, with color on the walls, more effective lighting and more room for showing art. The entrance hall, previously stark white, looks good with sage-green walls accenting the arc of the stairwell. The sculptural quality of Steven Holl's architectural design shines through, but feels cozier and more inviting.

The museum closed down in September 2003 with empty coffers and deep-seated problems with its business plan and artistic mission, and questions about the workability of its new $23 million building. Since then, with new faces on the board and a thoughtful new director at the helm, the organization has strained to raise the $3 million needed to reopen its doors and pay for the first year's operations. That means it's time for Eastside patrons who like what they see to get out their checkbooks if they want to keep the museum open.

Some changes jump out the minute you walk in. For one thing, there is plenty of art to look at, even before you head upstairs to the galleries. Executive director Michael Monroe diplomatically selected objects that would appeal to a wide swath of the community. There's the requisite installation by glass guru Dale Chihuly, of course, and front windows brightened with a collaborative painting by local artists Walter Lieberman, Cappy Thompson and Dick Weiss. On the first landing of the stairwell looms a simple, glowing yellow woven linen wall hanging. A 1974 piece by the now 98-year-old New York fiber artist Lenore Tawney, "In Fields of Light," references meditational mandalas and the spiritual leanings of classic Northwest school art. A nice choice.

Anchoring the atrium space is a towering bronze sculpture, a 17-foot stack of chair forms that also serves as a humorous way to encourage donors. You can "endow" a chair (a pun on the way university patrons sponsor faculty positions) for a $10,000 donation. The other grand gesture you see before moving upstairs is a brawny steel architectural screen by Albert Paley, whose work is featured in a second-floor exhibition. A photographic image of a gate at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery crafted by Paley also acts as a trompe l'oeil entrance to the elevator, giving the freight-sized clunker some much needed pizzazz. Unfortunately, the outside entrance of the museum could use more drama, too, and the low-key Julie Speidel sculptures positioned there are easily overlooked.

Start at tea time

The best place to start an exploration of BAM's expanded gallery space is the third floor, where you'll find whimsical graphics on the walls and brightly colored room dividers to break up the space. You step out of the elevator into the midst of 250 teapots — more permutations on the form than you ever imagined. "The Artful Teapot" is a fascinating array that's both playful and compelling. The pots come squished on the wall (as in Piet Stockman's "Twenty-five Teapots"); they get deconstructed and sugar-coated (Ron Baron's "Dear Mother"). There's the chain-wrapped "Hostage Teapot" and the sliced "Three-Piece Divided Teapot." You'll find them stacked, multiplied, zippered and Kentucky fried.

What you see is but a drop in the bucket of the vast collection accumulated by Gloria and Sonny Kamm, who claim to own more than 7,500 teapot-like objects. (The couple will present a free lecture on the collection at 1 p.m. Sunday at the museum.) The traveling show, organized in New York, was selected by ceramics scholar Garth Clark to focus on those that stand out as works of art or superior design. Many of the objects are one-of-a-kind, artist-made pieces and others are production ware by great designers such as Walter Gropius and Michael Graves. Still others, no less great, were devised by unknown craftsmen, such as the extraordinary purple fluorite pot, of amethyst-colored gemstone, made in China circa 1850.

Seattle artist Pam Gazale crafted a conceptual beauty in "Teapot Sculpture," a sensuous teapot form that has the pristine elegance of carved marble. In fact, though, the sculpture is made from rock salt. If one were to pour boiling water on it, not unreasonable in the life of most teapots, it would promptly lose its Cinderella form and revert to a humble state.

Another star is Seattle ceramist Akio Takamori, whose 1987 "Multi-figure teapot," aswarm with little nude figures, is a diminutive beauty. Takamori has other pieces in the show, too, as do art-world stars such as Kasimir Malevich ("Suprematist Teapot and Three Cups," 1923) and Cindy Sherman ("Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson) Tea Service," 1990). You will also spot, if you look out the corner window to the rooftop reflecting pool, Seattle artist Buster Simpson's lighthearted "Shard Cornice," a wall of concrete blocks topped with multicolored blown-glass castoffs, sure to detain the most discriminating home-invaders.

To give some context to "The Artful Teapot," Stevan Harrell, a curator from the UW's Burke Museum, was contracted to put together a small show about the different ways tea is served around the world. He came up with a series of pleasing vignettes spotlighting tea ceremonies from six cultures, including Iran, Japan, Korea, Paraguay, an especially lovely look at Tibet, and a funny, apt glimpse of the glam plastic culture of bubble tea. For those in the know, a see-through tumbler of the chewy, flavored iced tea drink is as much a symbol as a Starbucks cup.

Improved look, functionality

So, that's just the third floor and a lot to take in on one visit. But, being on a first exploration of the born-again BAM, we'll want to take the stairs down to the second floor and see what's what.

The look and functionality is much improved, with former classroom space converted to galleries. This is where you can find "The Artist Responds: Albert Paley and Art Nouveau," which began in the lobby and wends through several second-floor gallery spaces. Paley made a name for himself creating beefy architectural ornamentation, and this show tries to tie Paley's style to the Art Nouveau objects he and his wife collect. I liked seeing Paley's accomplished drawings and the progression of his sinewy metalwork, especially the steel and glass "Pair of Torchères" from the collection of the Racine Art Museum. And many of the Art Nouveau pieces he's collected are superb. But when Paley puts the two together, as happens in a series of his dark, heavy, ornate "Objet d'art Tables" topped with European decorative art treasures from his collection, it creates a battle of aesthetics that left me cold.

Also on the second floor are the Pilchuck Glass School galleries. The opening exhibition, "Taking Shape: Pilchuck Glass School in the '70s," capably curated by Kate Elliott, looks back to the early years of the school and some of its prime movers, from co-founder Dale Chihuly to the late Italo Scanga (1932-2001) to the team of Flora Mac and Joey Kirkpatrick. It's a well-crafted introduction to the school with a special treat: Elliott dug up 1970s-era photographs of the fuzzy-haired artists, reminding us how young and audacious they were back then, when the adventure of Pilchuck began.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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