At the entrance to James Harris Gallery, a peculiar document hangs on the wall. It's a stainless steel shelf with a yellow tag that says, "Collection of James Harris." On the shelf is a still life of bottles of liquid—moisturizer, glue, conditioner, vodka, coconut oil, spot remover, silver dip. These were all once clear or white, but they've changed color as they've aged.
It seems appropriate that this still life portrait of Harris, made by the artist Nayland Blake in 1993, stands at the entrance of Harris's final show in the distinctive space where he has run his gallery for the last nine years. (He's moving a block away, to a place with double the room, and will open April 3.)
Still lifes are always in the position of pointing out that there's nothing very still about life. As Harris likes to point out, still lifes are as much about the objects pictured as about the spaces between them. In Message in a Bottle, the show that contains the Blake piece—a pleasurably wide-ranging survey of contemporary still lifes in painting, installation, and photography—there is only one work that approximates the size of a person. It's a cabinet with a painting above it, and the objects divided by a stretch of blank wall space. They're linked in the mind by a shared pattern. Together they might be seen as shorthand for the Cartesian mind-body split. But which is the mind and which the body? The painting-head bears the marks of the hand, while the cabinet-body is manufactured according to plan.
Message in a Bottle includes artists who are young and new to the gallery, especially recent University of Washington MFA graduate Eric Elliott, who buries scenes from his studio—a trio of paint cans, a bunch of vessels piled together—in mounds of luscious gray oil paint. What's there is almost invisible in the force fields of gooey mist.
By contrast, Adam Pendleton's shiny black cubes with rounded-off edges are visually overdetermined, unmistakably there. But they are secretly mutable. Visit the show twice and you may see them in different configurations; they have no fixed form and can be set any which way, like Tony Smith's Wandering Rocks. They are like his classic six-foot minimalist steel cube, too, except that they are only 10 inches on all sides, glossy, and ceramic, like decorative objects or dwarfish ottomans. They are affordable, and available in an unlimited edition.
Seattle painter Joseph Park offers what looks most like a traditional still life: a vanitas-style painting of cut flowers on a table, rendered in sepia tones. Also on the table, as if in contrast to fading life, is a children's puzzle of a smiling cartoon cow. While the palette references the brown shards of analytic cubism, the surface of the painting is shined to glassy perfection, locking it down as if it were a scene under ice.
Francisco Guerrero, also of Seattle, is a painter who, like Park, has roots in graphic culture. What is a still life painting after advertising? Yet another sale? Guerrero's slick-surfaced portrait of two emptied drinks and a fragment of a woman's torso with her skirt hiked up is juicy and sad.
San Francisco–based Stephanie Syjuco sets objects together in allegories of broader environmental disjunction. Pacific Super is a photograph of Asian supermarket products lined up in the shape of Stonehenge. Her reconstruction of a pawn shop in cutouts of castoff electronics set on shelves is a facade more desirable than the original—at least its paper can be easily recycled.
Boston-based Andrew Witkin has different reasons for lining up objects on a tabletop. The objects appear most often in pairs—two different versions of the same news story, the same to-do list written twice, brochures for two slightly different cell phones, two books by Robert Smithson next to two records by Sonic Youth (and near three signatures from Tim Hawkinson's autograph machine)—so that the table becomes a complex study of relationships that gives more the more you look at it. The opposite is true of Swedish artist Helga Steppan's groupings of her belongings according to their color. The monochromatic photographs of these groupings are inviting, only to be obdurate. The objects coalesce into alien landscapes.
Of all the dealers in Seattle, Harris is most known for his meticulous installations, which in themselves are quite like still lifes. They have an air not only of care but also slight melancholy. It will be fascinating to see Harris—and gallery director Carrie E. A. Scott—arrange in and animate another location.