pop departures and ralph pugay at the seattle art museum

Here in Seattle, we have a thing called “First Thursday,” where local museums are open to the public for free on the first Thursday of every month. (Is this a national phenomenon?) This month, it happened to coincide with New Year’s Day, AND the Seattle Art Museum has a pop-art exhibit that’s closing on January 11th. So, I kicked off 2015 with a trip downtown (another bonus: free holiday parking!).


Pop Departures is a collection of works by American Pop artists, including icons Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and more contemporary artists like Margarita Cabrera and Barbara Kruger. There’s been some recent controversy around Lichtenstein in the comics world that I don’t feel comfortable commenting on, because I don’t understand it fully… but it did cast his work in a new light for me. Here’s a BBC.com profile on the whole thing. Was his work plagiarism? Is Warhol’s work just a plagiarism of product labels and celebrity photographs? What constitutes plagiarism? What about sampling in music? Cover songs? As I walked slowly from piece to piece, my heels clacked loudly against the gallery floor, echoing through the spacious rooms, making me feel even more alone, although I clearly wasn’t on a free museum day.

One of my New Year’s resolutions (besides writing here more, obviously) is to create art again (something I did a lot in high school), and while I thought this exhibit would be inspiring, it kinda bummed me out. What makes something art? Is it intent? Execution? What makes a slash of red paint on a white canvas a piece of art? Is it truly a commentary on women’s rights? Why do some painted squares get hung in museums, and others languish in thrift stores until someone buys it on a 50%-off colored tag day? As I headed towards the escalator, I started thinking, “Do I even like art?” (Yeah, I know — that escalated quickly.)


But then right by the escalators, I came across a mini-collection for Portland artist Ralph Pugay. Apparently, he’s a recent winner of the Betty Bowen Award, which “honors a Northwest artist for their original, exceptional, and compelling work.”

Pugay’s paintings reminded me, yes, I fucking love art. While he’s undoubtedly a skilled artist, his work doesn’t have the technical intimidation of the photo-realistic royal portraits in the European section. There’s a na├»ve, outsider-art kinda flatness to his paintings, sort-of reminiscent of Esther Pearl Watson, another favorite artist of mine.

And what sets Pugay’s work apart is each painting has a hilarious premise, like something out of a “Mr. Show” or “Kids in the Hall” sketch. Check out Gymnastics Bull Attack (2013) above, or Chicken Pox Orgy (2012) below. And, yes, some pieces seemed to suggest deeper intent, like the “red slash=feminism” example I mentioned earlier, but I dunno, I think I just respond to comedy better than minimalism.

Sadly, Pugay’s exhibit also comes down on January 11th, so if you don’t have a chance to see his work in person, at least visit his website here. I was so happy to come across his exhibit so unexpectedly, and it was a nice, reaffirming moment to start off my new year.


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