What's a museum for? The Henry mounts a very contemporary show for a very élite audienc

"Mouth Open, Teeth Showing: Works from the True Collection," the current exhibit at the Henry Gallery, is about as au courant as it gets. Thirteen pieces, most of them contemporary videos by leading figures in the field, are on view, most for the first time in Seattle.

William and Ruth True have a close relationship with the Henry. They donate a major work from each exhibition at their Western Bridge Gallery to the museum. Western Bridge Gallery opened in 2004 to display examples from their collection, which focuses on younger artists and experimental formats.

It's unfortunate, however, that, unless you are among the cognoscenti, you won't be able to fully understand many of the pieces now at the Henry or decipher their artistic purpose.

This is conceptual art, and conceptual art is filled with meaning. Sadly, the Henry curatorial staff is of the opinion that interpretation within the gallery gets in the way of the appreciation of the works, especially for members of the "art community" whom they consider to be their primary audience. Too bad! I suspect that even the most sophisticated museumgoer appreciates background information on the artist, subject or anything else the curator offers to help that visitor understand what is on view. And I thought museums that solicit and accept taxpayer dollars were under an obligation to serve the public, not just the "art community," whoever that is.

Museums started out some centuries ago as private enclaves for the privileged few. In them, lovely objects and interesting oddities were placed on view for the wealthiest and noble-born members of society. Over the years, the concept of the museum matured. An interest in research developed. Still later came the mission to educate. By the 1960s the museum community embraced its educational mission with increased fervor, and by the 1980s museums around this country committed themselves to outreach. They wanted to bring in new audiences, help the uninitiated to feel comfortable in their imposing halls and provide tools for them to enjoy and understand what was on view.

Art is indeed an intellectual as well as an aesthetic experience, something that gains in meaning and appreciation the more you know about it. That's the reason that art historians get graduate degrees and most museums spend large amounts of money to interpret their exhibits to the public. So it's appalling, at least to me, that a Seattle museum dismisses its obligation to educate the visiting public by suggesting that if people want to know more they should buy the catalog or come on the one day a week when there's a gallery guide present.

Since the Henry won't offer any help to you if you visit this interesting exhibition on a day when the interpreter isn't there, let me offer some thoughts.

MY FAVORITE PIECE IN THE SHOW is Stephen Dean's "Volta," a video of Brazilian soccer fans. Almost nine minutes long, it's projected in a dark room swathed in colored bunting like that which the passionate fans unfold, wave and use to heighten their enthusiasm for the game. We never actually see a game, just the color and gyrations of the exuberant fans accompanied by a soundtrack of their noise. The opening shot is of rippling cloth, which is pulled aside to reveal the frenzied bodies underneath. What then unfolds before you, the viewer, is an undulating painting where colors and forms rise and fall, appear and disappear in the movements of the fans and their flags or buntings. The title "Volta" is a soccer term referring to an offensive move that leads to a spectacular goal.

We see a feminist perspective in Jeanne Dunning's video "Icing," in which someone, presumably a woman, whips up a batch of creamy white frosting and then carefully applies it to the head of another woman, who wears a doily around her neck just like the ones you might find on a cake plate. One assumes that Dunning is commenting on the adornment of women and its capacity to hide individuality beneath a sugary coating.

Zoe Leonard is another artist who brings a feminist viewpoint to her work. She's a photographer and moving-image artist, but she also does assemblages, and her assemblage here provides the title for this exhibit. In a vast, white-walled gallery, 162 dolls stand in ordered rows. Thrift shop dolls of all colors, babies to grown women dolls, dressed and undressed dolls, dolls in various states of repair. Like some exotic vegetables, are they waiting to be plucked or, like an army on the move, do they dare you to thwart them? The visitor is allowed to walk among them, to tower above them yet be intimidated by their solidarity. You can't experience these dolls without being affected viscerally.

Doug Aitken's five-screen video installation called "i am in you" could as easily be called "A Day in a Life." In it we see a girl experiencing life in the small moments and ordinary encounters. The artist considers it a "psychological landscape of perceptions." In the concurrent videos, time expands and contracts, and you the viewer are invited to fall into the girl's world.

Most of the other works are equally interesting. I wish I could tell you what day the museum guide is there to enhance your understanding and appreciation of this show, but the Henry hasn't provided me with that information. You can call 543-2280, but most of the information on their exhibit line is out of date. I liked the show, would have liked it a lot more had there been information about the artists and their intentions. But you can do what I did, look them up on the Internet to get a richer sense of the exhibit.

'Mouth Open, Teeth Showing: Works from the True Collection'
Henry Gallery, University of Washington
Through Oct. 7
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, Thursdays until 8 p.m.
Free through Labor Day[[In-content Ad]]