A view of Patricia Piccinini’s Embrace, at the Frye.

Patricia Piccinini: Hug

Frye Art Museum

Through Jan 6.

Hissing malignantly in the middle of the Frye Art Museum is an animal resembling a cross between a miniature orangutan, a vampiric bat, and a prehistoric beetle. But is he malignant? Made of silicone, fur, and acrylic resin, he perches on a tree branch upholstered like furniture. According to the label on the wall, he's a (fictional) creature designed by Patricia Piccinini, an Australian artist, to protect a (real) endangered species.

The simian scarecrow's charge is the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater, a little yellow bird pictured in a nature video on a nearby monitor. Bodyguard, from Piccinini's series Nature's Little Helpers, is meant to swing from tree to tree to scare the bird's predators—humans chopping down Australian gum trees.

In "documentary" photographs of the bodyguards interacting, they come across as not only heroic in their communal function but privately lovable, a wrinkled grandfather sitting idly while teenagers swing like mad, or two females admiring a drag race alongside human observers.

The titles of these images are written as though by disinterested scientists (Thunderdome [It is possible that these two females are attracted to the noise and smell of the drag racing.]) or policy advocates (Arcadia [The rapid proliferation of these creatures seems a small price to pay for the increase in Honeyeater numbers since their introduction.]).

That last title is a prompt: Remember the cane toad! The cane toad, memorialized in a priceless 1988 documentary film, was introduced into Australia to combat beetles eating sugar cane. They became rampant pests themselves.

Piccinini's art does not attempt to answer the questions it asks, about which progress is the right kind, and how much is too much. At the intersection of nature, science, and technology, hybridity is inevitable. She makes baby motorcycles—little, tadpolish ones that will grow into adult bikes. Her delicate drawings show unfamiliar creatures sleeping next to and playing with human children like siblings.

In a life-size sculpture, a woman is attacked by a hairless young creature that has its arms around her face and looks to be suffocating her. The woman is falling backward in struggle. But the creature's face, visible from behind the woman, wears a frightened expression. Maybe the enemy is somewhere else, and the woman is where this animal has come for safety. The sculpture is called Hug.

It's an uncomfortable embrace, something intense and fraught with fear, but it also inspires sympathy, warmth. The same goes for Piccinini's stunning 2007 video The Gathering, in which a foreboding domestic scenario climaxes in a moment of grotesque, gratifying revelation. This is the first U.S. survey of Piccinini's work. The Frye can be proud of having co-organized it (with the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa).

Matthew Offenbacher: Captain of a Huckleberry Party

Howard House

Through Nov 10.

Matthew Offenbacher is involved in a practice that still is startlingly dangerous, although it is not new. "Bad painting" began in the 1980s. Offenbacher's update on the genre continues its flaunting of conventions of taste (though with all the ironic reversals, it's hard to remember whether tie-dye and mosaic are out or in at the moment), but deletes the attending sneer. His folksy '70s scenes populated with animals—beavers, otters, horses, weasels, owls—channel historical modes of "transcendental" painting (Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, Malevich, Rothko) as well as the spiritualist crap sold at, say, Pike Place Market. They draw together those old poles of avant-garde and kitsch under an umbrella of tenderness. Which is weird. And risky.

He doesn't always pull it off. An Alfredo Arreguin–style painting of a coyote on a hippie-dippie pointillisty ground is just a bad painting, not a good-bad painting. Paradoxically, it suffers not only from simplistic derivativeness but also a failure of skill. The coyote is inert, the background muddy instead of sparkly.

But when he does pull it off, the paintings have good hearts and a lot on their minds. They're trying to figure out, like so many post-abstraction post-figurations, how to square the voyeuristic, religious sublimity invested in wilderness (and painting) with the total skepticism of modern life and art. Where many artists draw out the doubt of the viewer in order to toy with it, Offenbacher wants to draw out faith as an equally fecund proposition. It's timely, considering the coinciding popular terror of both religious fanaticism and natural disaster.

His show's title, Captain of a Huckleberry Party, invokes American transcendentalism by referencing a criticism of Thoreau by Emerson. Thoreau could have been somebody, captain of the world, but he just hung out in the woods, captain of his own little huckleberry party, Emerson charged (in a speech at Thoreau's funeral, no less). The notion of private pleasure versus public action has echoes in historic constructions of femininity and masculinity as well as in historic theories of painting (the picturesque and the sublime, swishy pop and tough-guy abstract expressionism).

Burlap covering the white gallery walls and a cheesy dark-wood molding form the ideal innocent yet lightly knowing backdrop for a painting of two cavorting otters (even formed loosely into the dreaded yin-yang pose!) seen from underwater, the aqua-stained canvas bleached to depict the light of the sun above the water's surface. In another painting, Some Rothko Problems, three adorable white weasels feast on the psychedelic, floating carcass of a horse. They're almost paintings that a New Ageist might hang in the den, but better. Or worse?

Ben Hirschkoff: Atmosphere Attached

Gallery 4Culture

Through Oct 26.

For the 2006 University of Washington MFA show, Ben Hirschkoff built a stage set. The floor was made out of old wooden pallets studded with a miniature forest of rusted nails. Sheets of black rubber strung on iron pipes acted as curtains, pulled open on a black backdrop with a rainy sky of blue latex house paint that had run all the way down to the stage floor. Two dirty, bubbly shaped white clouds cut out of sheet metal hung in front of the sky like silly grade-school props with an edge of existential despair. Beneath them a tree stump stood among the nails, looking perturbed. It was called Cloud Cover.

That piece introduced a language Hirschkoff has continued to use in shows at SOIL and now in his first solo outing at Gallery 4Culture: cartoonishly vaporous weather and raw surplus building materials.

In other works, Hirschkoff brings fire and smoke—the stagy fire of flickering "flame" lightbulbs—to the picture, and he has worked both flat on the wall and using (exposing) the layered forward thrust of a stage with its fly system. It's been like a postmodern cross of Anselm Kiefer and gas lamp Broadway. Increasingly, the natural elements have been hooked up to wired machinery or industrial parts. The staginess is out in the open.

At 4Culture, a series of bubbly clouds are puzzles of amber, translucent, and transparent glass parts connected by iron pipes. (The plumbing becomes a groaner when Hirschkoff attaches actual spouts to the pipes on one cloud.) The variegated shadows of the clouds, floating on the wall, are more like naturally occurring clouds than the heavy clunky things that cast them.

It's what Seattle artist Rachel Maxi calls a magic moment in art, when an object comes across both as its materials and the object it's referencing. There's a sort of transubstantiation taking place in the mind of the viewer, made more pleasurable by the fact that fire, clouds, and rain are glimpsed in materials that control and handle them: rubber, metal, plastic.

In addition to the static wall sculptures, Hirschkoff makes flat, abstracted landscapes punctuated by bright black silhouettes. But he demonstrates his best developing feature, a certain material boldness, in mixed-media sculpture with moving parts. Caricatured but ominously enormous smoke silhouettes issue forth from pathetic little flashing lightbulbs near the floor.

In Attempted Rain Mechanical Refrain, the largest piece at 4Culture, straight, thin strips of metal lightning bolt down from a cracked, childishly rendered cumulus cloud, screeching across an aluminum backdrop shaped like a proscenium stage. The sounds they make, heard faintly in the room and loudly in headphones, are quaint and awful at the same time.recommended

jgraves@thestranger.com