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Originally published April 16, 2011 at 7:03 PM | Page modified May 3, 2011 at 10:51 AM

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Seattle's Degenerate Art Ensemble gets the museum treatment at the Frye

The exhibit "Degenerate Art Ensemble" at Seattle's Frye Art Museum through June 19, 2011, explores the world of the local performance-art troupe, which is known for its elaborately costumed song-dance-visual spectacles.

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION Review

'Degenerate Art Ensemble'

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays, through June 19, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org).

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Perhaps you've never stood close to a "weeble-wobble dress" — never had the chance to examine its circular steel frame, its crimson-patchwork exterior or the tubular bells attached to its sides that can be played with kitchen pots (or ninja swords, if you prefer).

If that's the case, the new show at the Frye Art Museum is your opportunity.

"Degenerate Art Ensemble" explores the world of the Seattle-based performance-art troupe of the same name (commonly abbreviated as DAE). Founded in 1993 as the Young Composers Collective, the loose-knit group of artists and musicians became DAE in the late 1990s as artistic directors Joshua Kohl and Haruko Nishimura shifted its focus away from jazz-classical orchestral appearances to song-dance-visual spectacles.

The "weeble-wobble dress" is just one fantastical costume in which Nishimura has appeared. It's a thing of beauty in itself, backed up by three videos showing her in action in it. But "Degenerate Art Ensemble" isn't just an exhibit of artifacts from old DAE productions. Instead, it examines, as Frye Art Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker explains, the "intersection" between art object and performance.

The show, curated by the Frye's Robin Held, includes new work created specifically for it. It also takes items from the DAE "archive" — a "slug princess" costume by fiber artist Mandy Greer, video excerpts from DAE stage performances, that wondrous weeble-wobble dress (built by Colin Ernst, costumed by Ruthie Nicklaus) — and puts them in a fresh context.

As anyone who's attended a DAE performance knows, the action onstage closely resembles a headlong dive into realms of the unconscious. The "stories," far from being linear, follow a dream logic, with the costumes, makeup, movement, musical interludes and video effects sometimes taking priority over any overt narrative momentum.

For that reason, DAE's world translates well to a museum setting. The Frye show lets you set your own pace as you stroll from room to room and shape your own narrative from the materials at hand. Brief video excerpts from past DAE productions provide a context for the outlandish objects on display. In the Frye's black-box theater, a longer video program highlights recurring DAE images and obsessions.

Personality transformations and physical metamorphoses abound. Creatures repeatedly emerge from cocoons and stumble their way into existence. Fond nuzzlings take a cannibalistic turn. Playful artifice becomes primal savagery.

There's a constant sense of being drawn into rituals that could turn on themselves at any instant. Here's a world of demons, ghosts and shape-shifters that, while it can be as beguiling as a fairy tale, can also be as menacing as a nightmare. Earlier works ("Hell's Cauldron," "SCREAM! LionDogs") are overtly sexual and perverse in tone. Later shows are more stylized and ethereal, while still remaining intense. (Butoh dance — sometimes used to grotesque comic effect — is a strong influence.)

The video excerpts, which vary in technical quality, provide a useful overview of the troupe's career. But they only hint at what it's like to attend a DAE show. Other displays make clear the meticulous artistry that goes into each production, down to the ad campaigns that precede a show. (Steven Miller's photographs for "Cuckoo Crow," "Sonic Tales" and other DAE projects, far from being mere press shots, are "sculpture for the camera," as Nishimura puts it. And they're complemented by Bruce Tom's photos of DAE in live performance.)

The music woven into the shows has grown increasingly rock-influenced in recent years, with Nishimura's wild, warbling vocals coming more to the fore. (Imagine some Björk quirkiness grafted onto the banshee arias of Yoko Ono, and you'll have some idea of what she's up to.) Alternating with the raucous dissonance and tight, tricky syncopation are passages of trance-inducing beauty. The 12-minute flow of "Mr. Schmidt's Levitation Apparatus" (from "Cuckoo Crow"), for instance, is as dreamy as its title suggests.

Two new installations in the exhibit suggest a more abstract, sound-focused direction that DAE may be taking. "The Entrancers," created by Robb Kunz, consists of four aluminum seesaw contraptions with speakers on them emitting bird sounds. Pinpointing where the bird song is coming from, as you walk around the gallery, is a challenge.

"Turning Nest," created by Kunz (sound design) and Nik Weisend (sculpture fabrication), is more opulent and magical. Eight hanging podlike sculptures have MP3 players concealed in them. The pods — made of paper, wood, beeswax, glue, cheese cloth, plant fibers, sumi ink and other materials — are both sinister and alluring. As you walk among them, the music keeps changing its balance and emphases.

"Degenerate Art Ensemble," like last year's "Implied Violence: Yes and More and Yes and Yes and Why" (another performance/artifact exhibit), confirms the new direction the Frye has taken since Held came on board as curator in 2005 and Birnie Danzker assumed directorship in 2009.

Both women, at a press preview for "Degenerate Art Ensemble," put an emphasis on the international flavor they're trying to bring to the Frye's contemporary-art exhibits. "Life of Imitation," a show by Singapore artist Ming Wong, is a recent example. The international exchange is intended to go in both directions, with the Frye producing exhibits by Seattle artists it believes will have appeal overseas.

"Degenerate Art Ensemble," Held feels, fits the bill exactly. In November, Seattle photographer Isaac Layman will also have a solo show at the Frye that should have some international legs to it.

The quiet museum on First Hill looks poised to make some noise on the global scene.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Ruthie Nicklaus designed the costume for the "Weeble Wobble Dress" on display at the "Degenerate Art Ensemble" exhibit at the Frye Art Museum, while Colin Ernst engineered its steel frame. In an April 17 article on the show, Ernst was given sole credit for the piece.

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