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At the Frye Art Museum, a very quiet, very human work of art

Susie J. Lee. Still Lives: Exposure, 2010. HD video portrait in framed, matted LED monitor. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrimore Project.
Photo by Ryan K. Adams
Susie J. Lee. Still Lives: Exposure, 2010. HD video portrait in framed, matted LED monitor. Courtesy of the artist and Lawrimore Project.

What does 30 minutes in a person's life look like?

Artist Susie Leeasked and answered that question while spending time at the Washington Care Center, a long-term nursing facility and rehab unit.

What she created is a series of  highly-composed video portraits that are sometimes so quiet, you think they're still photos. The videos are silent. They last 30 minutes long -- real-time; there is no editing. And they feel so intimate, it can make viewers uncomfortable to watch.

The entire series is called"Still Lives" and it shows in one continuous loop on a monitor at the Care Center.  Lee completed the project in 2010.

But the series is getting new attention because one of Lee's portraits is on display at Seattle's Frye Art Museum as part of Lee's first solo museum show.

"Susie J. Lee: Of Breath And Rain" pairs two works that uses technology to get at the theme of time.

The first work is a  video portrait called "Still Lives: Exposure." The video shows an image of a woman napping. The only action is her breathing.

The Frye's deputy director Robin Held curated the show.

"You're watching this beautifully composed image and then you begin to see movement. It's not a photograph. It's not a painting. It's a video in real-time," Held says. "And you start to become aware of her chest rising and falling and you start becoming aware of that rhythm in your own body. It's not like you copy her. You become aware of that woman, her life. Your own life and you kind of slow down to meet her."

Lee came up with the idea to do something on age and time after seeing her parents and realizing, "Oh, they seem a little more fragile."

She wasn't sure how she'd capture that vulnerability in a piece of art. Butan artist grant sent her to the Care Center, a facility that initially made her uneasy: These would not be active retirees playing ping pong. The skilled nursing facility serves people recovering from surgery as well as those living out the last months of their lives.

"And I remember thinking, 'I need to take a moment to think if I can handle this.' But you're in that space, you’re really uncomfortable and you think, 'That’s why I’m trying this. To figure out that uncomfortable space.'"

She spent months getting to know the residents, hearing their stories, figuring out their personalities. And she noticed that much of their lives was spent waiting -- waiting for their families to visit; waiting for a meal; waiting for something.

She decided she'd run a camera on them for a half-hour, asking them to be still. But Lee also decided each portrait would reference a series of work known as"The Black Paintings"  by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya. So the portraits are dramatically lit and there are props involved: a hammer in one portrait; a rock wrapped in a pink blanket in another.

The second work in the Frye show is radically different -- and shows how Lee isn't easily labelled. (Named a 2010 Stranger "Genius" winner as well as an "Artist to Watch" by Artnews, Lee started out studying ceramics. But she's collaborated on dance pieces and performance works. And she's currently working on a children's book.)

"Rain Shower" is an installation that marries audio with light. The metaphor here is the ephemeral, mysterious nature of memory.

"Susie J. Lee: Of Breath and Rain" is at the Frye Art Museum from Feb. 18 through April 15, 2012.