Yesterday I had the delightful experience of seeing a painting for the first time and being absolutely sucked into the painting. If you don’t already know him, let me introduce you to native Seattle artist Jeremy Mangan. I discovered Mangan’s work at the Tacoma Art Museum, which is one of my favorite museums in the area because it focuses on local art. (It’s not trying to be the Met.) Anyway, Mangan’s large (108 x 84 in.) Pacific Northwest Desert Island (2016) stands on its own on a wall in the museum and is—at least to me—super striking.
As someone who frequently visits the rocky beaches of Puget Sound, this painting looked immediately familiar. I felt a sense of recognition as soon as I saw the painting. My brain said, “Hey, I know that!” as if someone has presented me with a secret code that I had just learned. I felt that recognition when I saw the twisting orange trunks of the manzanita trees and the expansive gray and white of the cloud-filled sky that blends, at the horizon line, with the endless gray-blue of the water and, of course, the rocky shore and the towering pine trees. But.
But then I noticed that Mangan has thrown in some details that are less recognizable. That are in fact confounding. First off, islands like this, at least islands of such small size, don’t really exist in the Puget Sound region. This little microcosm, completely cut off from the mainland, just isn’t something you’re used to seeing. Still, I can imagine that I’m contemplating this island while standing on a rocky shoreline just like the one Mangan has created for his island. I can smell the salty air and feel the misty weather. But when I mentally cross the water and land on the shores of this little island, something feels off. Instead of the deserted feeling you would expect on a “desert island,” there is evidence of human activity here. A red ball hangs from one of the manzanita trees. A deflated balloon? A punching bag? I’m not sure what it is, but it’s clearly not natural. And there’s further evidence that someone has claimed this natural space for their own: found pieces of old wood have been gathered together into a rough shelter, a blue plastic tarp hangs on a rope tied between two trees, and—most notable—a campfire burns, sending a large plume of smoke into the sky. Significantly, this does not seem like a recreational campsite. No REI backbacks and Coleman tents here. No happy family toasting marshmallows on the large campfire. In fact, the shelter and tarp look more like the belongings you would see at one of the many homeless encampments thrown up in the grassy areas at the edge of I5, the major interstate that runs north-south through the center of Seattle. In a way, then, Mangan has infused this quintessentially Pacific Northwest scene with another quintessentially Pacific Northwest feature: its homelessness crisis.
But where is this island’s inhabitant? His or her absence feels eerie, given all of the material evidence that the island is inhabited. Since the fire is going strong, we know the island’s resident must not be far off. Would we find this person if we peeked inside of the slapdash shelter? If we rounded the other side of this oddly tiny island, would we find this person gathering driftwood to stoke the fire, to assure another five minutes of warmth, of light to fend off the coming darkness, of protection from whatever it is they’ve come to this island to escape?
In this landscape I so recognize, Mangan has managed to create a sense of mystery. I want to wander Mangan’s island and do detective work. To analyze the artifacts that tell the story of this little island and the person who found it. And so Mangan keeps me looking. It’s delightful, and a bit sad, to sit and ponder this story.