Sometimes everything just falls into place.
When Seattle artist Stefan Gonzales began pulling together their first public-facing work of art, they envisioned the work having a certain audience.
A collection of photographs presenting raw materials from local area construction sites, “Archive ID #420″” hangs as a large vinyl banner on the east facade of the Frye Art Museum facing Boren Avenue, part of the Frye’s Boren Banner Series, which features art at a billboard-sized scale.
It was originally imagined as something the employees at Swedish Health Services’ First Hill campus building across the street could enjoy. Gonzales was consciously making efforts to make sure their work wouldn’t be too dry, even going so far as assuring the Frye that the work would include some pops of color. Though Gonzales typically works in black and white photography, they thought about the workers across the street who may look out at the banner on a rainy day and likely wouldn’t want to see more gray hanging from the museum opposite.
“Work’s hard enough,” Gonzales said, “let alone going to work and looking at something that you don’t want to look at.”
But now that the art is up in its home for the next five months, there will actually be no medical workers across the street to see it. Swedish’s Block 95 project has turned the building across the street into a construction site in what the artist considered “a happy accident” that puts the city of Seattle itself in full conversation with their artwork.
“I couldn’t have gotten luckier having that building gone,” Gonzales said. “That is the most iconic Seattle thing you can imagine is creating a piece for a building and that building not being there.”
Gonzales’ artistic pursuits have long involved interest in archiving materials from places like construction sites. But archiving in general isn’t something necessarily public-facing. With this work, Gonzales brings those archival efforts to the public, allowing anyone a glimpse into a conversation around the relation between art and society and the churning land on which both exist.
The series of 24 photographs that hang on the side of the Frye feature alternating rows, one with labeled bankers boxes with a bag of materials like quarry stone, all taken from and returned to local construction sites, and the next with photos of the raw materials on the ground.
Each photograph, and each bankers box, serves as an archive of what’s being dug up at those construction sites, asking viewers to consider their connection to those raw materials. When you start to ask the question of what we’re doing to remember and honor the raw materials and land at these construction sites, the boxes in Gonzales’ work can start to feel like evidence boxes.
The piece is part of the Frye Art Museum’s Boren Banner Series, a biannual public art initiative launched in October 2020 to feature regional artists creating new site-specific work or showing unexhibited pieces. Previous artists include Marilyn Montufar and Russna Kaur, with Molly Jae Vaughan’s art opening this October.
For the past few years, Gonzales has been using raw construction materials sourced from throughout the city for their art. Since moving to Seattle in 2012, Gonzales graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in 2016 and received their master of fine art degree from the University of Washington in 2020. The seeds for this series began in graduate school, as Gonzales watched the rapid growth of the city. They looked at massive online archives of construction permits and noted the constant nature of construction around the city. When the pandemic hit, work on the series was cut short as Gonzales decided to take time away from making art.
When the Frye reached out to them at the beginning of 2021, Gonzales had never done a public art piece like this. Their work typically fit more into an academic realm, providing commentary on the grander art institution as a whole. Their recent work has focused on conversations around land art of the 1960s and ‘70s. Land art, like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” features art made directly in the landscape, either by using natural materials or sculpting the art directly into the earth. Smithson’s 1970 Utah artwork, still visible today, uses more than 6,000 tons of black basalt rocks and earth to form a 1,500-foot-long coil.
“Land art has always been a very crucial part of the bigger art story because it is the least sellable of our work,” Gonzales said. “It was always a way to push back against the institution. I think that that natural spirit of wanting to give the finger to the larger institution as a whole is also what made angsty 18-year-old me be like, ‘Yeah, land art is the best.’”
Now, however, under the light of present-day conversations around land use, Gonzales wonders if more scrutiny should be put on these works. Not just because there’s the question of accessibility — since it takes both physical abilities and financial resources to, say, get to Rozel Point peninsula on the shore of Great Salt Lake to see “Spiral Jetty” — but also because there’s the very real question of whose land does that art actually sit upon.
With this series, hanging on the outside of the Frye, Gonzales offers a simple hope: that people can start making connections between their everyday lives and the raw materials that make them up. It’s more than looking at a wooden bench and seeing that, yes, it came from a tree. It’s acknowledging that cutting that tree, transporting that tree, building that bench and every step along the way includes people whose job it is to get that bench to where it is today. What better way to start that conversation than to look at Gonzales’ artwork, and then turn around and see an active construction site.
“Every material beneath your feet — in your home, at your work, at your coffee shop, wherever — every single one of those materials has an origin,” Gonzales said. “Just slow down for a second and recognize that your objects and materials around you have a life that exists far beyond them, and will have a life that exists far beyond you.”