MATTHEW VANHORN “Yes,” she said...yes (2007). Malcolm Smith

A little-known fact of Seattle art is that contemporary dealer Scott Lawrimore first became involved in art as a grade-schooler singled out for his drawing of Scrooge. Presumably the Lawrimore Scrooge had a sufficiently miserly presence to inspire his teachers to spirit him away to special advanced art classes, and this is how many art students are first identified—by their ability to reproduce something already known. This, however, is the last thing we actually want from artists (or just about any graduate of anything).

Every spring in Seattle, the two most prominent art schools, University of Washington and Cornish College of the Arts, hold exhibitions that display the proposed answers to the never-ending riddle of innovation, like the queen coming to Rumpelstiltskin one more time. The whole setup is dramatic. And in the meantime, as the artists are trying to find themselves, you're trying to find them. Most people with art degrees don't become career artists. Student shows are a way to make early bets on who's going to make it. It sounds harsh, but it's true.

The students at Cornish are supposed to be less polished; they're receiving bachelor's degrees, while the UWers are being declared masters in their field. In general, the art by the UW students, on display at the Henry Art Gallery, is competent. It's also sedate. With a few exceptions, it feels small in scope, and in some cases, shriekingly derivative. Has news of the hot art market reached all the way into UW classes and sent students scrambling to offer their most obeisant selves to dealers rather than to push the limits of what they can do? Or does graduate school itself feed complacency?

It's no coincidence that the two artists who stand out are the ones whose works seem the least fixed, the least contained in the gallery, the ones still squirming with play: Fred Muram and Matthew VanHorn.

Muram made three modest videos: one of him being fed a hamburger by three hands (two of a pair and one misfit, as if in reference to the clunky collage effect of early digital manipulation); one of him struggling comically inside a plaid blanket; and one with writing on his palms and the backs of his hands indicating his left and right and your left and right, with his voiceover reiterating the written phrases. Each video has its charms, but each is easily criticized, too, as if it were built with intentional chinks in its armor. They are actually part of a larger performance series (not included in this show) in which Muram narrates and critiques his own work.

VanHorn's piece, titled "Yes," she said... yes, is a giant crouching monkey made of scrap wood (and with a beard that looks like a frayed used carpet fragment), a big bright yellow tub, and a bunny costume. VanHorn says he intends to wear the costume to interact with the objects. As the story builds, other objects might be substituted, or added. The objects already bear the marks of contingency: the sculptures stand on wheels, the costume is apprehensive on its coat rack. Even the artist doesn't know where this piece will go, but given the uncanny attraction of the objects, I'm inclined to give it a chance.

Other artists worth watching are Michael Simi (is his Beef Stew Monster stalking visitors or imploring them?), Benjamin Eckman (do not miss his folk-artist statement), Nola Avienne (one hopes she is not quickly running out of things to do with metal filings), and Aitana de la Jara (whose large paintings are conventional, but feel devotional, and true). Already humming along nicely in his practice is Ross Sawyers, who has shown his photographs of false interiors at SOIL and CoCA, and who'll solo at Platform Gallery in July.

The art at UW has a lot of robotic moving parts. Cornish, meanwhile, is all body, in states ranging from muscular spasm (Robert Randall) to pleasant sedation (Jessamyn Johns, Justin L'Amie). (The show has already closed.) The women are in the lead. I'm taking down the names of Nicole Laverty (for her video of herself as a dirty old man and a pigtailed girl), Rachel Setzer (for her White House made of birth-control-pill packages), Ashley Bubacz (her sugar-decorated eggs with tiny disaster scenes inside), Madison Stratford (her acerbic celebrity collages fashioned using gauche lights and a handheld label-maker include the line "Everything I need to know I learned from [dealer] Greg Kucera"), Laura Kinney (dirt and delicacy), and Redd Walitzki (her Victorian digital animation).

Almost every one of these women is also showing weak work, which is fine for now. It's the sparks you look for. recommended