All photographs by Alicia Wilkinson.
The initial press release for the Fulcrum Gallery’s newest exhibition Union Tac emphasizes iconography, symbolism, and concept inspired by Tacoma; and, in looking forward to the show, I brought my own home-town pride associations with me, making for a complex state of anticipation.
The artist roster is impressive and full of familiar names: Chris Sharp, Sean Alexander, Chandler O’Leary, Sara Gilbert, Meghan Mitchell, Electricbranch, Elise Richman, and Noah Struthers all created original works inspired by the Union Tac theme. And the results are entirely unexpected.
I don’t think a show in Tacoma has ever surprised me more, especially since I considered myself familiar with the work of these artists. I really can’t underscore it enough. If you think you know what this show will look like, I guarantee you don’t.
When I met Oliver Doriss at Fulcrum the night before the show opened, the informational plaques were not yet installed so I was greeted by nameless, origin-less works and after investigating, I could only identify the associated artists correctly on two out of the seven works. Seriously. This show will surprise you.
Let me talk a little about this element of surprise by first talking about Oliver, the gallery owner, curator, and co-creator of one of the works in Union Tac. Oliver has been running Fulcrum Gallery in Hilltop since 2007, and is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Greater Tacoma Community Foundation’s Foundation of Art Award. More than that, Oliver is an outspoken creator and advocate for art and artists, forging his own way in the art world for nearly two decades.
Instead of mellowing with experience, Oliver has gained momentum often audaciously. He regularly finds creative and forthright ways of sharing how he sees the state of the artist today. This show is one such way, and at its heart, Union Tac doesn’t simply represent Tacoma: it combines nine perspectives to represent the current spirit of Tacoma’s artists.
Union Tac is weirdly simultaneously germane and timeless. Nearly every artist included either environmental elements like Mount Rainier, the Puget Sound, and our resident giant octopuses or cultural emblems like beer bottles, trains, and local architecture.
Some, like Chandler O’Leary, stripped our surrounding environmental features to their barest representation. Chandler crafted a fabric flag featuring Mount Rainier as a white triangle on a blue background, belted across the bottom by a stripe of forest green, and right at the triangle’s base, Tacoma as a golden circle. Chandler’s flag makes Mount Rainier seem like a super heroine and Tacoma, the source of her power.
Moving clockwise from Chandler’s artwork, Noah Struthers’ piece is the most immediately covetable. Some may recognize Noah’s intricate and beautiful pen and ink drawings from 2nd Cycle and Bike Jump flyers and his rendering of a Tacoma Coat of Arms is an adorable masterpiece that one immediately wants on a wall or t-shirt. His expertly realized crest features trains, gears, and the port and is surrounded by crow, raccoon, barnacle, and octopus embellishments topped with a glorious Tacoma Dome crab.
You encounter Chris Sharp’s painting next as you travel around the room, and although immediately identifiable as a Chris Sharp creation, there is something very different going on in it than what we’ve come to expect. Chris often crafts multi-layered paintings that incorporate nostalgic elements of fading and obscured sign painting, advertisements, and other mass messaging, now only half legible, leaving the viewer to work at deciphering the possible meaning.
Although this piece is clearly in the same family the meaning is blatant and immediately made me laugh every time I came back to it. A tattered black flag – framed by fragments of the words “Liquor” and “King’s Pawn” – waves defiantly with the loud message “WE’RE JERKS” emblazoned across it. This little piece has a big mouth – its insolent, funny, and really, for lack of a better word, gritty.
Next to Chris, we arrive at one of the most bewildering works in Union Tac. Sean Alexander created a small, exclamatory octagon of eight black pendants all reading “WOOT WOOT” in yellow. And beside it, a square also declaring “WOOT WOOT.”
There are really so many options for meaning here so I am going to go ahead and decide that this piece is an understated, absurd expression of jubilance. Sean’s work is also distinctly polished and precise, like a kind of brand that I can’t help but imagine would be best translated as set of snazzy pasties. Just think about it for a bit.
We cross the room and encounter the most classic interpretation of Union Tac from Electricbranch. A large flag made of varying navy and sky blue stripes and embellished with a white star, this flag is all enthusiasm and earnestness. The design is assured and the delivery precise but there’s nothing else below the surface here. That being said, I would happily install this flag on my front porch.
Next along the wall we encounter the only collaborative work in the show. Meghan Mitchell and Oliver worked together to craft a glittery pendant banner for Hilltop that designating it “Chilltop, USA.” Attached haphazardly to the wall with uneven string and rusty nails, the floor beneath littered with crushed Rainier beer cans, it’s clear that these disheveled details are intentional. This pendant is Hilltop incarnate, happy to represent without ego, regardless of litter, and with just a little shabby flair.
Elise Richman made the second-most-baffling creation in Union Tac. Known primarily for her abstract work, her contribution is undeniably representational and hilarious, offering another moment for me to stop, marvel, and laugh at such a cute creation. Elise made Tacoma a seal, “The Great Seal of the City of Tacoma,” in fact, and it features Mount Rainier, the Puget Sound, a healthy dose of decorative puffy paint, gold lettering, and a harbor seal (of course). It’s the funniest thing in the show, and begs to be featured on a crewneck sweatshirt.
And lastly but most certainly not least, we have an interactive offering from relative Tacoma newcomer Sara Gilbert. Sara has long worked in the Museum of Glass Hot Shop but only recently decided to make Tacoma her home, and we are the better for it.
Sara brings an inspiring and indomitable perspective to her vision of Tacoma, creating a dioramic assemblage of painted beer bottles and glass. The bottles spin, revealing the historic “You’ll Like Tacoma” sentiment and a series of anthropomorphized raindrops. The front is encased by glass bearing the architectural elements of the Narrows Bridge and a frolicking octopus. The piece is at once darling and obliging, allowing the viewer/participant to represent their current level of Tacoma enthusiasm by choosing to display just how much they may like Tacoma at any given time.
Union Tac is our State of the Artists’ Union: here we see nine artists (including the curator) expressing a obsessive/compulsive compilation of devotion, loyalty, frustration, imprudence, gravity, humor, fascination, and defiance, all fastidiously, comically, and harmoniously organized without irony. The appeal of Union Tac is undeniable – go see this show. Take a moment to consider the state of our artists and then buy some art. Each of the diverse and engaging expressions in this show deserve a home.
Fulcrum Gallery Presents: Union Tac
Chris Sharp, Sean Alexander, Chandler O’Leary, Sara Gilbert, Meghan Mitchell, Electricbranch, Elise Richman, and Noah Struthers
October 18 – November 28
1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, Washington 98405