Victoria Haven is walking around New York City and talking on her cell phone, locked out of the apartment where she and her husband Dave are staying during a recent visit. She's waiting to be let in.
"It's great to be here," she says. "I went to P.S.1 and they had one of those crazy group shows with too much work in it that they love to do." She laughs. "They had these little anal drawings, like I do, and there were these obsessive squiggles of this design kid that I really liked." Her voice is enthusiastic and good-natured, shifting between humor and analysis. For her this trip is part business, part pleasure.
It's been a hectic couple of months for Haven. She has been preparing for a solo show at Howard House, titled Wonderland; she won the prestigious Betty Bowen award; she won the Stranger Genius Award the day after her show opened; and then she turned 40. The Friday that The Stranger delivered the chocolate cakes that let Genius Award winners know that they've won, Haven was at home, relaxing and decompressing from the whirlwind of Wonderland's preparation and installation. The previous night had been her opening reception and the next day was her birthday. "I had just been on the phone with Dave talking about getting a cake for the party and I saw people coming up the driveway with a cake," Haven says. "I opened the door and I didn't recognize Regina [Hackett, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's art critic, who went along with the cake deliverer to write a story]. I looked at the cake and at first I didn't get it. Then it hit me and I started crying."
After the Publishers Clearinghouse-like posse left, she phoned her husband. "I told him I just got a cake delivered to me that says 'You're a Genius' and Dave said, 'Well, I didn't send it.'"
It has been a time of recognition for Haven, after 16 years of art-making. She has received plenty of previous notice, especially outside Seattle, but her most recent work seems to have brought her to a kind of tipping point of critical praise and award nods. "I was their Susan Lucci," she jokes of winning the Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen Award, after years and years of being up for it.
"She's been a big inspiration for me," the artist Claire Cowie says. "She remains unpretentious but she has a lot of rigor about her work. She can move between the two things easily."
That rigor and flexibility have led Haven to her current--and most accomplished--show, Wonderland. Haven draws impressionistic landscapes, some of which she then cuts out as relief patterns and pins to the walls, casting shadows; others are painted in delicate geometric lines and framed. Wonderland is a mountain made out of wood-grain paper (a synthetic material imitating a natural material) with geometric lines that constitute the mountain's organic form.
"There is a connection between the painting and what I do now," Haven says, on the subject of her earlier work. "For me it was like the history of painting was dragging me down. It was missing something. Working as an oil painter in the '90s I kept feeling like, 'How do I respond to the history of painting?'"
Her response was to leave. In 1997, she went to London to get a Master of Fine Arts degree from Goldsmiths College. "I left to change," she says. "I went to London to be a full-fledged 3-D sculptor." Instead she discovered something else. "I had been trying to paint almost three-dimensional, almost a very graphic design approach, but, of course, it would always flatten out. I wanted to find that dimension between two and three dimensions."
Haven found it by shifting her perspective. "I saw a lot of people displaying their work by pinning it to the wall, so I took my work off the wall an inch, instead of off the wall and onto the floor as sculpture." The work was liberated and the space she worked with opened up before her. "It's a place to explore that will never run out."
When she returned to Seattle in 1999, she discarded all the materials she had been working with and started over by working with rubber bands. She participated in a group show at Suyama Space. "They came to visit my studio and all I had up was one rubber band sculpture and they liked it," she says. "So for the show I had this rubber band installation that was sprawling and huge among these well-contained paintings and drawings. People who were familiar with my paintings were like, 'What are you doing?'"
It was a reintroduction to a whole new audience. "So many people had moved to Seattle and so many had moved away, but there's still a lot of continuity," Haven says. She straddled the bizarre gap between old and new Seattle. "People want to fight that regionalism, but you can't write off Fay Jones, you can't disregard all of that past history. New York is regional too. We're all part of a bigger dialogue but we all come from some place also."
Billy Howard, who owns Howard House and started working with Haven in 2000, has seen the evolution of her work. (Wonderland is Haven's third solo show at Howard House.) "I first saw her work in '97 and '98 when I was first opening the gallery and she was going to London," he says. When she returned he saw how her work had changed. "She had reduced her painting to the essentials. When she gave a presentation at the Henry as part of the architecture show you could see what she was working with in those early paintings and how it had changed."
"With her first show, Borg: Resistance Is Futile, you could see her moving in a lot of directions. It was architectural and then the second show was a field or landscape. The hatch mark from the first show had changed into a fence," Howard says. "For Wonderland she has cut out the fence. It's the architectural and the organic combined."
"There's the crucial thing: It's good to problem solve as an artist," Cowie says. "But you have to cause your own problems too, and Victoria creates really good problems for herself."
Back on the streets of New York, Haven says patience is part of problem solving, and as if on cue her husband arrives to let her into the apartment. "I knew if I waited long enough I'd be let in."
GENIUS DATA SHEET
BIRTH DATE: September 25, 1964.
TURN-ONS: Kittens, Post-it notes, frequent flyer miles.
TURN-OFFS: Gum, glass art, Sting.
CITIES I HAVE CALLED HOME: Seattle, Amsterdam, London.
FIVE THINGS BESIDE MY BED: Iris, Big Boy, Jessie's pearl earrings, a stack of partially read New Yorkers, and a West Elm catalog.