Located about fifty miles west of Olympia, on the cold shore of the Pacific, in the cold shadow of the Olympic rain forest, Aberdeen, WA has historically been known, if at all, as a home of serial killers like Billy Gohl, famous for clubbing sailors and dumping their corpses through a trapdoor into the bay; hermits like John Tornow, once described as “Thoreau without brains”; and the mothballed nuclear plant of the infamous Washington Public Power Supply System, or “Whoops,” halted in the early eighties, whose two cooling towers still lurk on the edge of town. To children of the late twentieth century, though, Aberdeen will always be known as the birthplace of Nirvana, the band with the cheesy name that burst from the alternative music scene of the late eighties and changed the face of rock and roll—or at least commercial radio—for the next two decades and counting.
To commemorate this world-altering event, Aberdeen now boasts a statue of its favorite son, Kurt Cobain, and the bridge he slept under is almost a shrine on the level of Jim Morrison’s gravestone in Père Lachaise Cemetery. It is this mythic Aberdeen—a state of mind as much as a fixed place on the map—that artist Shawn Records has semi-lovingly documented in the series of pictures called Harbor. After three years of trolling for clues to the region’s heart of darkness, he has emerged with a collection of images at once lucid and mysterious, artful and banal, full of acutely ambiguous perceptions of history as it fluxes on a particular marginal patch of ground, and fairly coursing with peripheral beauty trapped in the stasis of daily life. One representative image in Harbor shows some dingy grass. That’s it—just some grass littered with dandelions, cigarette butts, and seagull feathers, alongside a strip of rough asphalt spattered with bird shit. This unremarkable plot of earth could sit in any number of parks or playgrounds within a five-hundred mile radius of Aberdeen, and maybe it is partly due to this universality that the image evokes such a counterintuitive gust of nostalgia in the viewer—something akin to gasoline fumes at the Arco station, or flattened straws in the 7-Eleven parking lot.
As Records seems to recognize, though, beauty is no prerequisite for affection, and an image like this, of cruddy grass, is also an image, for some, of pristine sunlight. Another image shows a window. It is a plate glass storefront window, and around twilight it turns into a seething collage of reflections, a scramble of crisscrossing electrical lines, barren parking lot margins, mural images depicting some kind of grand historical scene, and, in the middle, the white hole of the setting sun. In the day’s final bath of light, the window manages briefly to collapse Aberdeen’s time and place, turning everything in sight, be it city or country, clean sky or chapped wall, historical fantasy or hard fact, into a single last dying gasp. It is this sense of dilapidation, of belatedness, of missed opportunity that not long ago was perhaps the main form of consciousness in the Northwest, poeticized by Richard Hugo and inscribed in story by Raymond Carver. One thinks of the scene in Sometimes a Great Notion when Jonah Stamper, the family patriarch, flees the woods after finding his bright new nails have rusted overnight. Or the homesteaders in H.L. Davis’ Honey in the Horn, who travel within sound of the Pacific Ocean and stop, never bothering to go the last mile to the water. These are archetypal stories of the Northwest because they capture something of the incompletion and impermanence of the place—the persistent rot, the rust, the ever-thickening moss. Why build anything when Nature tears down so quickly? Why, ultimately, bother?
The irony and achievement of Cobain’s Nirvana was the band’s ability to turn this dismal torpor into the very definition, for a moment, of the mass-cultural New. The serrated sludge of the guitar like rain clouds grinding over trees, the sarcasm of the lyrics, the loud celebration of failure in every form, made the likes of Aberdeen and the region at large seem somehow vital for a time, and in the aftermath the area has never exactly been the same. People elsewhere got the idea that the rain forest could support human life after all, and they moved here and proved it to be so. But as Records’ images gently remind us, the new notions are founded at least in part on illusion. Greater Aberdeen, which is really everywhere in the Northwest barring a few pinpricks on the map, is a place that only happened to look fast for a moment because it had moved so slowly for so long, a place lapped so many times that it briefly gave the impression of pulling ahead. Today, we live in a putatively post-Aberdeenian Northwest, a region that dares to imagine itself as forward-looking and young. But Records’ attentive eye keeps watch on the backward-swimming undertow lapping at the edge of town. His images remind us, mercifully, just how much useless beauty is still out there wasting away.
Shawn Records was an Artist-in-Residence in November 2009. Visit his website at www.shawnrecords.org.
Jon Raymond is the author of The Half-Life, a novel, and Livability, a collection of short stories, two of which were adapted into the films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.