How many artists does it take to describe a city?
No, it’s not a joke — it’s “A Fable,” a new exhibit at the Handforth Gallery in Tacoma Public Library’s main branch, where 24 local artists plus curator Lynn Di Nino each create their own autobiographical sculpture and text expressing what this city means to them. As a practical installation, it has a few problems, but as a concept — especially working in tandem with Di Nino’s own solo show “Riding the Express Bus 594” — it sculpts a complex, lighthearted image of Tacoma.
At first blush, “Riding the Express Bus 594” is the cleaner and punchier of the two shows.
Di Nino, with her characteristically sharp wit, has condensed Tacoma’s population into 14 10-inch-high cement people sitting on gray concrete bus seats that jut out in relief from the wall. Behind them are parallelogram-shaped photographs of the view out of the windows of the Tacoma-Seattle bus, many worthy landscapes in their own right: the Puyallup River, shining on a blue-sky day with Mount Rainer behind; a mediation on SeaTac high-rises; blurry traffic. But it’s the people — just small enough in scale compared to their window-views to be adorable — that say the most. There are a couple of celebrities riding this bus, like Dale Chihuly clutching a macchia on his lap, staring with typical blankness as he rides past Di Nino’s own house (she’s waving cheerily from the upstairs window); or Tiger Woods, complete with golf clubs, staring bemusedly out the window at an Indian smoke shop.
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But the rest are “types,” epitomized with friendly humor: the politician with dorky glasses and suit, the shopper with purple-dot blouse, the spotty teen with phone and earbuds. Occasionally, the contrast with their window view is telling, like the youth in a hoodie who’s bent in despair, head in hands, as a serene forest drifts by.
On the opposite wall, the story of Tacoma gets a little more complex and less direct. At Di Nino’s urging, 24 local artists joined her in sculpting tiny figurines of themselves, each epitomizing how they see Tacoma. Following the fable of the blind men discovering an elephant part by part, the figurines are installed climbing up a giant pink paper elephant taped to the wall.
The installation itself is problematic and takes away from the strength of the art. Most of the figures have their backs to the viewer, which means you can’t see some of the most artistic touches: the blind barn-owl face on Heather Cornelius’ exquisite clay gold-winged bird-woman; the intricate Sumerian-style mask on Becky Frehse’s artist decked out in a cacophony of colors and textures; the long-beaked nose on Claudia Riedener’s blonde self-portrait, ever curious. The simplistic paper elephant doesn’t help, either. Perhaps a better solution would have been some kind of clear elephant with a tiny model of Tacoma inside it, allowing each figure to be both touching it and viewable from all sides. Or maybe a mirror.
The other issue with “A Fable” is reading the extremely informative, often-poetic texts provided by most artists on how they see our city. Currently arranged on the facing wall, this text would be easier to match with its sculptures on a printed sheet of paper, or even an app (hello, Tacoma Public Library?) that allowed an icon of each sculpture to reveal its own story.
Nevertheless, the concept of a place as something only imperfectly understood from multiple viewpoints is extremely well-expressed. We have Di Nino herself, made of white concrete and wearing protective eye-goggles, discovering a peanut (elephant — get it?). There’s Marita Dingus, with a clear plastic piping torso and red crate legs, two black-fabric hands extended to the elephant like a prophet; and Di Morgan-Graves in a turquoise turban and kaftan, gesturing like a seer out of the “Arabian Nights.” Ruby Reusable is there, wearing an upcycled plastic headdress, and Elayne Vogel sports a diva outfit of feather-boa shoes and peacock hat. At the top, Jeremy Gregory in khaki skate clothes grins as he touches the saddle-cloth: an edition of The News Tribune itself.
In other words, what each artist says about Tacoma through their art says as much about themselves — a perfect metaphor for the way we all view life.