Things get messier the farther into the gallery you go. In the front are grids of photographs, certificates, plaques, laser-cut black acrylic letters forming the words "EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME RIGHT NOW," a version of the movie Dr. No with all the dialogue segments cut out (it's surprisingly cogent still), a functioning vending-machine dollar-bill acceptor installed in the gallery wall, and a black box on a pedestal. All these are artworks by a single artist, Caleb Larsen, who used to live in Seattle but now lives in Mexico, and who can easily be called a conceptualist.
The artists in the back of Lawrimore Project this month are sensualists all the way. Which is not to say they're not brainy as hell. The show is called Wet and Leatherhard: A Group Exhibition on the Edge of Ceramics, and while many of Larsen's works directly address the awkward economic conditions of art—the disconnect between art value and monetary value, for instance—most of the works in Wet and Leatherhard are not even for sale. They've been borrowed just to be shown here in each other's company. The title says what you need to know, both in meaning and in tone: This art is unfixed (wet and leather-hard are the two states of non-dryness in ceramics, when things can still be changed), and it's sexy. It's also intense, whereas Larsen's work makes a point of detachment, detachment being its own form of risky commitment. If these two exhibitions were people, they'd admire each other. (If they hooked up, the sex would be weird and hot.)
Since commercialism in art has been such a popular subject of the last few years—think of Damien Hirst's shameless diamond-encrusted skull and Takashi Murakami's installation consisting entirely of a working Louis Vuitton sales shop—Larsen's preoccupation with it in this exhibition is nothing new. It was easier to love the poignant bit of frost he grew right on the gallery wall by building a hidden freezing system inside it at Lawrimore Project in 2008. But Larsen is extremely clever; he's managed to create a highlight of the genre called A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter. It's a black box (riffing on Robert Morris's 1961 Box with the Sound of Its Own Making) that each week, regardless of who has bought it most recently, puts itself back up for auction on eBay. Any magic that is conventionally thought to be contained inside a work of art is displaced: This art accrues value by the spectacle of accruing value. Its first two weeks for sale, it had no bidders; then it began to appear on blogs (The Stranger's Slog, then Reuters, Wired.co.uk, and Slashdot, among others), and by the third week's auction, the starting price of $2,500 was bid all the way up to the winning price of $6,350. What were people competing for? To participate in a work of art and perhaps to make a small profit—the collector pays the eBay fees and gives the artist 15 percent of the difference between the starting and the closing auction price, but otherwise keeps the profit. Box scheme or work of extreme honesty? Both. And what a title: A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter sounds like a literary reference (a cross between Stephen Hart Crane and Kurt Vonnegut?), but it's not.
The other highlight of Larsen's exhibition is the dollar-bill acceptor: It picks your pocket with your consent. You immediately put in a dollar, like a Pavlovian dog, greedily wondering what you'll get. The answer is: nothing. It's called $10,000 Sculpture (In Progress). When it raises $10,000, the artist and collector will split the money and it will start over on the same $10,000 goal, forever panhandling.
Wet and Leatherhard is in some ways a much more traditional exhibition—it includes unmistakable art objects—but there are no traditional ceramics at all. The clay is a medium that is acted on and with, not shaped into vessels or fired with glazes. Gallery artist Susie Lee (who studied under Akio Takamori and Doug Jeck in the University of Washington's former, experimental ceramics graduate program) curated it masterfully, selecting works by artists in all stages. On one end of the spectrum, recent UW grad Ben Waterman introduces himself with assemblages on the wall and the floor combining fabric, bricks, plastic wrap, and spray paint. A female torso rests on the floor next to a full sketch pad, the hard-nippled breasts two piles of petal-like clumps of clay spray-painted hot pink, lurid and at the same time elegant.
Longtime UW ringleader Jeck shows two remarkable pieces. One is a video of the artist with clay on his face, drying and cracking, as he caterwauls Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." The video is painfully sad, despite the fact that it should be an absurdist comedy. The monitor is an old-time TV streaked with clay on an antique chest; the whole thing throbs with loss. Jeck's other contribution is a row of photographs depicting the movements of what seems like a single, extremely idiosyncratic and expressive figure who might be a man in costume. In fact, each one is a separate clay sculpture "acting" inside a badly drawn paper set.
A series of photos and video from Jim Melchert's 1972 ritualistic performance of people dipping their heads into clay slip suggests the material's deep link to a belief in the possibility of transformation. Going entirely the other way is L.A. artist Kristen Morgin, whose painted clay copies of vintage comic books and an old iron Popeye piggy bank look more authentic than the originals they're displayed next to, mucking up conventions like time and nostalgia and progress and worth. Stranger Genius Wynne Greenwood made plaster baskets shaped vaguely like female hips, painted with thick lines for strap-ons and wearing punk spikes. They're to die and kill for.
The farthest point inside the profound mess of Wet and Leatherhard is a wall of performance videos by Meiro Koizumi, the Japanese video artist who recently closed a 10-year survey and a new commission in Seattle and Bellevue. Melodrama for Men #1 and #2, from 2008, touching on the Japanese kamikaze attacks of World War II and a woman's story of rape by the Japanese army, are rich, vivid, and brutal. Like living in a body. You're in the belly of the beast at this point, and it's a long way out to a clever black box.