Arts & Culture

Woolworth Windows portraits go in many directions

It’s an artform that never dies. From cave paintings to selfies, portraits have been around as long as art has, constantly evolving in tandem with our own self-conceptualization. In the latest installations inside downtown Tacoma’s Woolworth Windows, the portrait genre gets yet another remake in four different directions: the psychological, the abstract, the symbolic and the calmly confrontational.

Commerce and 11th streets

In the downhill window, the artistic team of Marisa Vitiello and Beate Liepert recreate in eerie 3-D form the true story of Margaret, a woman in the 1960s who apparently lived in a flooded apartment with a dolphin, trying to teach him to learn her name. The bizarrely quixotic yet condescending attitude isn’t lost on Vitiello (an educator) and Liepert (a climate researcher), who recreate the moldy apartment with black-dripped walls. The silhouettes of both the woman, in a black knit dress, and yellow-green dolphin, sewn together like a vintage toy, are suspended mid-window as if in floating conversation. It’s atmospheric, almost like a picture book, but a little too simple. There’s more complexity to this story than is recreated here.

Broadway and 11th Street

The upper corner window is filled with more paint drips, this time splattered onto white boards on “easels” backed with black-painted wooden stakes. In Nathan Orosco’s “Take it to the Bridge,” the smudged, smoky-black paint contrasts oddly with swathes of purple-dyed fabric and silver foil flags to create an effect like charred ruins, or a ghostly picket line. Orosco quotes his own poem as inspiration: a vaguely New-Age homage to the “kindred spirits of the realms” who collide and kindle within “all that is human.” The emotion’s clear; the expression’s not — but the overall effect is one of human self-examination without a traditional answer, and it fills the space well.

Broadway, middle window

In the middle, filling the longest window, is an exhibition of photo portraiture that’s made the rounds of several local gallery spaces over the last couple of years, and is still highly effective. “Transgender Neighbors,” facilitated by the Rainbow Center, seems intended as a quiet way to highlight the lives, challenges and insights of Tacoma’s transgender community through portraits of some of them placed strategically near local landmarks like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Wright Park. Biographical texts fill out the details. But raised slightly above eye-level, placed in a setting with connotations of display and with every portrait’s subtle exaggerated close-up, the meaning gets deeper. The people in the portraits are ordinary, yes, wearing their daily clothes, posing in places we all know, smiling happily or even making visual jokes like climbing on the lions at Wright Park. But they’re so close to the camera that in the Windows they’re in your face, which gives them and their stories extra strength: Pat A., in a leopard-print miniskirt, white blouse and gold bling, posing Miami-style in a tropical backyard; Lance W., in pinstripe vest and T-shirt, arms folded confidently; Addison C., in a straw bowler and sundress doing an ironic pin-up pose on the rock at Point Defiance Japanese Garden’s pond. In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s 15 minutes of fame, it’s great to see these folks doing what they’ve been calmly, strongly doing for years — living transgender lives.

Broadway, first window

“We Part to Meet Again” is Sarah Casto’s first installation, and so it’s impressive to see such thought and connection in a work that mixes media and symbols like a sculptural collage. From her explanatory text, there are the suspended animal bones representing the depth of love; the cactus skeletons on the wall symbolizing boundless love despite the environment; five eyes conveying uncertainty and loss; and the color red as the desire for clarity.

But there are so many others, not explained yet not needing explanation: a wall full of open, downward-

facing scissors striking in rhythm and menace; two headless naked mannequins leaning toward each other with a baby-doll’s head lying on the turf between them; a striped awning floor speaking of summer and happiness; another floor of bloody-wristed hands creeping away from another mannequin, this time in jeans and hoodie, connected to the other two with a blood-red string. And finally, the words of the title, split between two windows and bordered with empty picture frames to emphasize their inevitability. It’s well thought-out, the man-made and natural materials contrasting and flowing — a portrait of lives connected despite their separation.