Brian Sanchez and Neon Saltwater, installation view of Energy Drink, 2020–21. Photo: Rafael Soldi, Courtesy the artists and Museum of Museums, Seattle, WA

Brian Sanchez and Neon Saltwater


Museum of Museums

Energy Drink, an extensive, immersive installation by the artist team of Brian Sanchez and Neon Saltwater (on view through August 29, 2021), presents a number of possible interpretations: a gay dystopian environment for a “happy” couple; a hallucinatory fun house revolving around domestic symbols; a series of discrete activity areas for upscale urbanites who require access to gyms, spas, art galleries, sculpture studios, bars, and lounges. Even through the artists have created something far removed from anything resembling a meditative, chapel-like setting, Energy Drink, with its heightened chromatics, also turns out to be a surprising reflection on the Light and Space movement, especially the work of James Turrell and Dan Flavin. 

Sanchez, an abstract painter who has shown in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, and Saltwater, an art director whose clients include Barneys New York and Starbucks, combined their talents to create a hushed layout of “rooms” identified by designated activities—for instance, a gym with a weight-lifting bench and a bedroom with an absurdly large double bed, which becomes a giant, flat sculpture bathed in pink, orange, blue, and green light. Enormously popular since its debut last year, Energy Drink fills the entire second floor of The Museum of Museums, which is located in Seattle’s premier gay neighborhood, Capitol Hill; the museum is adjacent to many bars and restaurants and open late on Friday nights. Perhaps a buzz heightens the pleasure of wandering through the darkened, garishly lit rooms, adding a frisson of exploring a private home in the absence of its owners. Energy Drink also parodies the insane real estate market in Seattle, where luxury perks entice the wealthy, driving rents up alarmingly and forcing out long-time residents, as has been happening on the Hill.

Is it possible for such an ornate and candy-colored environment to have a political dimension? Can it meaningfully call attention to the precarious living situations of urban gays in Seattle? The ability of abstraction to carry any content intensifies discussion of the collaboration. For example, the pink punching bag could be read as a weapon or defensive object. But on another level, the off-kilter environment, whose ambience recalls a silent gay disco, spoofs the seriousness of Turrell and Robert Irwin, offering glowing lights devoid of spiritual resonance. Sanchez’s hard-edge abstract paintings, hanging in various places, turn Modernism itself into a source for satire, as he and Saltwater riff on its requirements of simplicity, chromatic purity, and spiritual aura. Energy Drink is closer to Pop art, like the furnished room-size installations of Andrea Zittel or early Claes Oldenburg.

Fizzy and funny, Energy Drink seduces visitors with its inviting, mysterious corners. A photographic blow-up of a stuffed toy animal may allude to young gay men as “cubs,” in search of older “bears.” A few steps away, two rectangular benches suggest seating in a steam bath. (The city’s oldest gay sauna, Crystal Steam Baths, was located just across the street until the entire block was razed by Swedish Hospital for a parking structure.) With Seattle’s history of site-related public art, the allusion is inescapable.

Saltwater’s lighting design creates a seamless flowing path through the spaces, highlighting sculptural objects and furniture, throbbing with overlapping orange, purple, and acid-green pools of light. No one would want to live in such an interior—it has to be an anti-paradigm of sorts, a commentary on the special struggles and conflicts affecting gay couples, stressed are they by social issues and pressures. The fantasy apartment should be a safe space, but it is quite public, with viewers doubling as unwitting voyeurs, deliciously drawn to participate in a vicarious conjuring of art, design, and sex that redefines sculpture while reinforcing its central core of three-dimensional reality.