Jenny Heishman Keeping afloat at ConWorks. Arthur S. Aubrey
Binocular Parallax
Consolidated Works, 500 Boren Ave N, 381-3218.

Through Nov 23.

The idea of the local art scene is something frequently invoked in service of larger civic ideals--the health of the community, government funding, social life--but it's not often that we think about what a scene, our scene, means as a whole, if only because we work with our noses so close to the page that we forget to step back and read the print.

This may be why it's so dislocating to be presented with the idea of Seattle-ness in an art show, the more so when it's against the idea of somewhere else--in this case, Vancouver, BC. Like the peripheral awareness of your American-ness that you never experience at home but start to feel once you cross the border, local sensibility is more easily defined as what it's not.

Curators Meg Shiffler (Consolidated Works' director of visual art) and Jonathan Middleton (exhibitions curator at Vancouver's Western Front) have identified, for the purpose of parsing the differences between our two cities, the concept of binocular parallax. This is more easily demonstrated than described, but it is the phenomenon that occurs when you look at an object with one eye, and then the other, and the object's position shifts. (Try this at home!) Shiffler and Middleton invoke the idea of distance and perspective, and posit the question of how different two places can be when they're close geographically--how wide is the cultural gap between them.

We are more or less past the age of manifestos and movements, past the pack mentality that used to lead to currents of art that could be diagnostically read in the years before pluralism, before the time when anything went. The aim, nonetheless, of this show is to map the cities culturally, within themselves and against each other; although I don't think it quite manages to do this, it begins to chip away at something interesting.

I found myself treating the whole show like a conceptual work, applying the practice of binocular parallax to the works in Binocular Parallax--looking at them first as individual pieces, and then trying to fit them into a larger idea about distance and space. It's apparent that the Vancouver artists tilt toward conceptual work and installations, and the Seattle artists toward sculpture and painting, but of course this isn't a complete picture. In a curatorial conversation distributed to the press, Shiffler and Middleton touch on the differences between government funding in Canada and the United States; one wonders whether Canada's generously funded artist-run centers (but less vigorous gallery scene) might encourage the pursuit of more avant-garde but less commodifiable art. It is interesting that defining a cultural landscape may have more to do with money and market than with the search for that ineffable something that's inherent to a place.

Much of the work here is very good (Jenny Heishman's gently tippy inner tube; Dan Webb's dissipated gnomes cavorting in a structure built of institutional tables; Evan Lee and Mohamed Somani's 2000 titles for works never made--pure poetry), but Binocular Parallax registers mostly as a nice show with lots of room in a beautiful space. I loved the chance to see another work by Seattle's Bret Marion; here, he's showing a kind of disturbed Platonic schemata of photographs, with limbo represented as a row of croutons (neither bread nor cracker), and the earthly struggle with matter as stressed-out businessmen interspersed with weedy tangles. (I adored, but didn't know what to make of, a row of computer-manipulated poodles in tiny decorative frames on the floor.)

The Vancouver team of Hadley Howes and Maxwell Stephens has created the only work that comments on the show itself. They surveyed the exhibition in a series of small drawings, and then in a reinterpretation of John Seal's enormous self-portrait with J. P. Patches as Bart Simpson with Krusty the Clown. Now the bi-city questions start to roll: Who's got perspective? Who is authentic? Who laughs at whom?

But just because a question can't be answered doesn't mean it shouldn't be asked. Binocular Parallax is refreshingly ambitious, and it could be that somewhere down the line we'll look back at this show and it will seem exactly right--before its time, prophetic and true.