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Artscape: Implied Violence is Arresting Theater

The performance art that is Implied Violence, at Seattle's Frye Art Museum, also produces intriguing props, such as this wax chair pierced with arrows.
Steven Miller photograph
The performance art that is Implied Violence, at Seattle's Frye Art Museum, also produces intriguing props, such as this wax chair pierced with arrows.

 A new exhibit at Seattle's Frye Art Museum is full of items rich in double meaning. Like a large wax chair full of hundreds of arrows. Or a jar full of medicinal leeches. 

And then there's a stunner of a dress that stops you as soon as you walk in through the door. "You'll see a really beautiful dress, with wide wide sides. And it looks very sheer. It's organza," says Frye deputy director Robin Held. 

"Now the surface of the dress looks like it's covered in bugs."

It's actually covered with more than 2,500 black bows. But it doesn't stop there.

"Underneath this dress is almost corseting for the legs. The space in which the wearer has to move is only 23 inches. So moving in tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny steps, it may take her hours to get across the rotunda."

This act of transforming the body is a fascination of Seattle performance art group, Implied Violence. In live shows, the group has dripped fake blood onto a performer's face. They've even put one another under with ether-soaked rags.

The artists insist they don't do anything simply for shock value but their performances s will undoubtedly make you gawk.

The group is routinely referred to by its initials, IV.

"Do you want to get under people's skin?" Ryan Mitchell, the group's director, is asked.

"I don't ever want to upset anyone. Because I don't like to be upset," he says. "But I do want things to resonate for longer than a television episode or even a lot of plays."

If Mitchell sounds a bit cocky well, then, that confidence has helped him make a name for his group. IV's fans include Robert Wilson, the acclaimed avant-garde theater artist in New York who's worked with Phillip Glass and Tom Waits.

The Seattle artists have produced 26 multimedia works that meld theater, movement and sound.

Held, the Frye curator, felt it was time to showcase the group here. 

"One of the ways a museum exhibition of Implied Violence can function, to not only show what they do and why they're important, but to also demystify some of the images," Held says.

That imagery can be unsettling to look at, as the curator shows photos and explains more about IV's costumes on display.

"A mask that distorts your features enough that it's difficult to speak," Held describes. The mask looks like something that would be put on Hannibal Lecter.

"Kind of," Mitchell says. "But that's also based on pieces of shaker artwork. Like the woodworking. And You can see two little headsets on the side so someone was speaking through a walkie talkie and on top of the mask there's a music box that plays the most beautiful child's lullaby. So a lot of things are happening to this face at once."

Mitchell, dressed in a cardigan, looks more bookish than scary. He co-founded the group six years ago with a roommate when they were both students at Cornish College of the Arts. They ached to push the boundaries of traditional theater. 

IV recently performed a 6-hour show outdoor in the Frye's reflecting pool. The performers wore white face makeup and repeated movements for hours on end, like jumping up and down in the water in one spot.

If IV's live-shows come across a bit like gruesome mayhem, that mayhem is the result of a lot of research and a ton of creativity.

In a West Seattle warehouse - a rehearsal space paid for by the Frye - a guy practices shooting arrows at a bale of hay. And in another corner, a woman dips hand-made paper flowers into a jar of tar. 

Mitchell shows off a room plastered with images - from religious to pop culture - that end up inspiring costumes, dance movements and scripted dialogue. 

"I think we try and address this idea of the poetic image, which is both uh, something that is both simultaneously beautiful and terrifying at once," he says.

Take something like being leeched, which he's done to himself in the shows. The critters may send one's skin crawling. But Mitchell says look at the pretty tiny rivers of blood that form.

So the museum display features a jar of leeches, with text explaining their historical medicinal use.

And Held says IV's use of sensual materials - such as gold leaf, feathers and wax - traces back centuries as materials used in rituals. 

The museum show introduces the fringe group to a wider audience and it gives everyone a bit of context for art that otherwise might be shrugged off.

"' Oh, they're just goth kids, with eyeliner and piercings or something,'" Mitchell says, mimicking the response some people may think upon seeing their work. "But being able to come inside the Frye and have your own time and space to be able to evaluate is really important."

That experience, worth braving, continues at the Frye through Jan 2nd.

The "Implied Violence: Yes and More and Yes and Yes and Why" exhibit website.

The Frye's Robin Held will lecture on the exhibit at 2 p.m. on Dec. 11, 2010.