The first room of Thick as Mud at the Henry Art Gallery, bathed in terracotta-tinged light, is unfurnished except for its display: snakeskin latticework stretched over two picnic chairs. Rain sounds splatter from speakers in the ceiling, and occasional thunderclaps echo. The descriptions on the wall label the chairs as Sitting Shiva and the overhead audio as Tropical Storm, both by artist Sasha Wortzel. Sitting Shiva is Wortzel’s meditation on endings and beginnings in the South Florida Everglades, where the invasive Baurmese Python has devastated local populations, and the installation sets the tone for the exhibit, establishing a pattern of thoughtful examination of historical and environmental themes conveyed through intricate artistic techniques.
Sasha Wortzel, Sitting Shiva, 2020. Burmese Python skin, vegetable - tanned hide, aluminum, plastic. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view of Thick as Mud, 2023, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle. Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit , courtesy of the Henry
The sheer variety, texture, and creativity of the installations in Thick as Mud make the exhibit an endlessly fascinating landscape. Many of the art pieces use mud as a medium, but materials aren’t limited to clay. Caked dirt, shaped into geometric reflections of Mission Soledad, California, clings to Christine Howard Sandoval’s paper hangings, titled Pillars - An Act of Decompression, Fire, and Arch- A Passage Formed by a Curve. Dineo Seshee Bopape’s animated video, spliced together from paintings of soil and water from historical sites in the transatlantic slave trade, roils and tumbles in a dark projector room. Earthen pigment stains the white clothes in Eve Tagny’s installation, setting the scene for the artist’s video poetry. Each new display takes the premise of mud in a wildly creative new direction, and the artists use these creative approaches to effectively represent deeply emotional themes, from colonialism’s environmental impact to the racialized violence of gentrification. These innovative aesthetic approaches bring the artists’ stories to vivid life, and each piece is intellectually and emotionally impactful, making the Henry’s enclosed, cozy gallery space feel like a treasure trove of artifacts that powerfully memorialize personal and global histories.