What Does Ecuador Have to Do With Seattle?

Kate Vrijmoet steps back from her spare, dripping portrait of a man standing with bloody stumps for arms, throws back her head, and cackles. "That's so funny!" she crows.
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Kate Vrijmoet steps back from her spare, dripping portrait of a man standing with bloody stumps for arms, throws back her head, and cackles. "That's so funny!" she crows.

It's an early summer day in Seattle, broad white of overcast but not rain-cloud, and one can see the ocean from the gallery building in which we stand observing Vrimjoet's gruesome handiwork in the trendy and cobblestoned part of downtown.

The portrait's done in latex house paint. The look on the subject's face is almost one of wry humor. In this series, "Exploding Moments," the same poor fellow shoots himself with a gun, loses fingers in a snow-blower, and other various and sundry gory predicaments. Vrijmoet's paintings focus on the moment after the violence has occurred but before cognizance of damage on the part of the sufferer.

"Some of my paint has actual blood in it," she says.

I laugh.

"No, I'm serious," she says. She lifts one of the thirty tubs of paint grouped on the butcher paper taped to the floor and tips it for me to see: the color of red wine, the consistency of cottage cheese. "Pig's blood," she says cheerfully.

Vrijmoet was running in high heels to which she is not accustomed recently. She was sprinting in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the muggy city that hosted its second-ever painting Art Bienniale this past May. Her painting "Shotgun Accident"--part, of course, of the aforementioned series--won third place (an Ecuadorian won first and a Cuban second). Her friend, who knew of the phenomenon of "South American time," said they had plenty of it. Joseph Roberts, a juror for the Bienniale and the one who made sure Kate's painting made it onto the plane to Ecuador under the arm of his intern, had texted her asking where the hell she was. The concierge of the hotel where their wayward taxi driver stopped to run out and ask directions prevented them bodily from getting out of their cab. They arrived "as Noboa was thanking the caterers," Vrimjoet sighs. "He was extremely graceful though, and introduced me anyway."

"Every Bloody Second"

Noboa is the man behind the Biennial, and the museum that hosted it, which is named for his father, and which houses his own art collection. A billionaire whose father worked as a banana picker, he owns some of the largest companies in the country and has run for president four times. Like anyone of significant wealth and notoriety, especially in a South American country, Noboa is a polarizing figure. He also happens to be an old acquaintance of Joseph Roberts, the President of Seattle's Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) and President of the Board at Copper Canyon Press. Their friendship goes back a storied 30 years, to a time when Roberts actually died. He flatlined down there when he was 23 after the car he was riding in with Noboa and two young ladies was bisected by, of course, a banana truck. He also nearly tripped over the corpse of a woman in her underwear whose throat was slit while walking in Guayaquil mere weeks ago.

I can't prove any of this. I just met Roberts, charismatic, hearty, hale, and of course inscrutable, at the Zen Dog Tea House in January one dark Ballard evening. But over the phone at the headquarters of Roberts's office at CoCA on Seaview Avenue, Pablo Martinez, the head of the Luis A. Noboa Naranjo Museum in Guayaquil, which hosted the event, confirms plans to show Vrijmoet's work in a solo show of around 30 paintings this fall.

"We decided to give shows to the winners, who really were the best from their countries--and we had 25 countries, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Columbia, Kosovo, Russia, Turkey...and Kate could have won first. Her work is really terrific. Everyone couldn't stop looking at it. There was a painting also of eyes on the ocean, from Haiti. Everything going on in the world was represented in this Biennial. I don't believe we should take a political stance about art, but there were definitely messages to people. It was great for the country, for the artists, for everybody, because something like this elevates the standard of education for Ecuador."

Roberts hangs up the iPhone through which Martinez's voice reached us. As a broke, 25-year-old blogger, I try to assimilate what's going on, looking, I am sure, like the hapless guy in Vrijmoet's paintings: I blink and wonder if it's all really true, or if Roberts is just a world-class raconteur who'd given some buddy a call across the city. But I'd seen Roberts introduce Pullitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin and U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser at poetry readings in town halls and galleries. Joseph Roberts is the Seattle arts scene.

"I see it as my job to encourage people of means to invest in artistic expression, and I in turn see it as the role of the artist to take risks and ask tough questions, and I think Kate does that," he says. "I didn't know Kate when I saw her work, but her paintings kept coming back to my mind after I saw them, and that's when I knew she was the real deal."

Roberts usually takes 12-18 months to book an artist; he booked Vrijmoet in 2, during which juries in Brooklyn and Bremerton selected paintings of hers. "I see artistic expression as at the pinnacle of what humans do," says Roberts. "If culture had a soul, artistic expression would be that soul. You need someone to see not just the warm fuzzy stuff, but the violence, and be the big-ass mirror that sticks it in your face and tells the whole story."

"People are always saying they see violence in my work, but that's not what I think about! 'Accidents' started as a way to amuse myself!" Vrimjoet protests.

"You are a sick individual," says Roberts coolly, tapping away at his keyboard.

Seriously though, he respects Vrijmoet's obvious ability, beneath the macabre overtone and gallows humor, to pull the clothes and even the flesh off her subject. She got her MFA at Syracuse, then studied with Evalina Crosgul and Richard Ryan at Boston University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She picks up her two younger children from school in Capitol Hill and knows the name of the crossing guard out front. She'll tell you gamely about adrenaline, and how laughter is the lizard brain's method of ridding itself of its excess.

Roberts boils the essence of Vrijmoet's series down nicely: "Every bloody second is a gift and I have no assurance I am coming home tonight. No one does."

To Know Myself Well is an Invasion of Your Privacy

The refrain of bodies, gore, and violence resonates for me personally. I have lived in Ecuador on three separate occasions in the modest house of Teresa Alvarez, the motherly and industrious Executive Director of El Centro Médico de Orientación y Planificación Familiar (CEMOPLAF), a leading family planning center in South America. CEMOPLAF has well over 30 offices all over Ecuador, with hundreds of doctors and social workers--98% of whom are female--who for over thirty years have served women, men and youth with health and family planning services. I was 16 when I myself was in Guayaquil, but it wasn't to accept an award; I went with a team of doctors to visit the new office there and played cards with the young volunteer (or "promotor") coordinator there while eating fast-melting purple popsicles. The young man's name was Rafael, and Guayaquil was such a bright, humid universe that the tropical, hairy guavas and mangos mothers of five sold on doorsteps nearly hurt to behold, not even because of the plight of those who sold them but because of their bleeding color alone.

Vrijmoet's work hurts another way, but something about its viscera suits my memories of Guayaquil and Ecuador in general. I am apparently not the only one; after defending Vrimjoet's artwork as the only work done by hand "that posed genuinely ambiguous questions without any real answers" meriting real consideration at this year's Biennial, Roberts offered to recuse himself from the jury, which was made up of three Ecuadorians and an Argentinian as well as himself. But he's got decades of experience as an public arbitrator in the financial sector, and, he says, can make calls apart from biases based on the rules of the game. In this case, it was because "a week or two after seeing it, her paintings were molesting me, and if you can't answer the ambiguous question an artwork poses, the artist has got you."

Vrimjoet, who came to Seattle in 2009 from New York for her husband's work, has an assortment of jasmine and other flower-teas in back of her workspace, and clean clothes draped on a chair. I ask about a moment when she mentioned "the scream," touching her midsection as she did so. "I'm not sure what you meant," I admit. She holds up one of her black loafers. "You know. Ooooooaaah!" she sings operatically, from the diaphragm, gesturing to the mouth of the shoe. And after that I did know. Vrimjoet, with a halo of orange curls and bright eyes behind Grease-cool spectacles, wants only to talk about her art. Take, for example, the day in Roberts' office: "I'm the perpetrator," she says with great seriousness. "At the end of the day, I'm the one doing this to these people in my paintings. And when I'm painting it, violence isn't even what I'm thinking about. There's a fantasy aspect to it." The question Vrimjoet poses is one of disturbed interiority as much as gory external events. It's a journey to the end of a daydream, the last stop on the tracks before the train disappears into the abyss. The fact that human minds can conceive of this violence, can obsess about it, may be one of biology and survival. Or it might just be that we're all lucky no one can read anyone else's mind, or if they can, that they can only do so insofar as they know their own.

Somehow, in the disparate weaves of conversation--Seattle, Ecuador, Noboa, art, violence, politics--the layers of memory, mine and Josephs and Kate's, of political undertone: graphic violence and corporal gore rise to the forefront like sea garbage, like the worst of us, like that which artists of Vrijmoet's caliber and awareness ask us to confront. Dare we confront it? Dare we try and answer the questions such images pose: that of a 24-year-old mother of six with two black eyes, sobbing in the CEMOPLAF office because her husband would beat her if he knew she was asking about birth control? The image of the slain woman, stripped of her clothes, in the streets of Guayaquil? The image, finally, of a man leaking blood where his hands should be?

"The total objectification slays me," Vrijmoet writes later, ostensibly about figure drawing, but with a strangely apropos choice of words. "The art keeps unfolding for me too. Everytime I think I have the answers, I peel back new layers."

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