Photographs by Alice Wheeler

The opening on August 16 was hyped (overhyped) as a rock show—on posters wheat-pasted around town—and fittingly, the crowd was locked out of Lawrimore Project during sound check. A huge audience had turned up to witness a young artist's break into the upper reaches of Seattle's art world. The artist was Anne Mathern, best known for her photographic depictions of people doing awkward or abnormal things in scenes as perfectly coordinated as fashion shoots.

When the doors finally opened to the darkened gallery, Mathern was suspended from the ceiling and bouncing up and down on a fake sand mountain, while Seattle fantasy metal band Doomhawk played on the other side of the room, facing her. It was, as one observer pointed out, "neoprimitive craziness."

Doomhawk, also pictured in a photograph on the wall, had been costumed by Mathern in furs and feathers. Completing the primeval landscape, each member stood on a carved foam rock. What Mathern was wearing could be described as biblical—bare feet, a plain brown sackcloth dress, leather wristbands, a cream-colored robe—if it weren't for the big hawk brooch across her chest.

Continuous jumping is a workout, and Mathern's face turned red and slick with sweat, but she made no expression. Her eyes fixed on the band as though she were in thrall to it, and occasionally, the guitarist glanced over at her, wide-eyed and disbelieving. At first, she looked like she was miming a slack-jawed groupie, or a dangling dumb blonde in an Indiana Jones movie. Was she going to do something else besides this droning bounce? It created weird suspense, coupled with the driving monotony of the music. The more exhausted she got, the more she looked entranced, a slave to the music.

Early on, the crowd was split in two, the music people and the art people back to back, each facing their respective representative. But the representative for art, strung up like a zombie, had already surrendered. This wasn't news. It was a portrait of reality. The size of the crowd was further proof that if you want a hot art event, you have to cheat art to get it—you have to invite in a band or a celebrity, manufacture a spectacle. Art, and in this case the artist herself, just tags along, even at her own party.

According to an e-mail sent to gallery regulars before the opening, Mathern was snapping pictures the entire time. She wasn't a zombie. She was treating the gallery as her studio, while convincing everyone she was barely there. The flash to the side of the fake mountain and the mysterious object (the camera button?) she was holding under her robe in her right hand corroborated the e-mail. But you didn't know what she was doing unless you'd gotten the e-mail. No wonder people kept asking what was going on.

Except that what you knew if you'd read that e-mail turned out to be wrong. The day after the performance, Scott Lawrimore, asked about the fate of those photographs, said that Mathern hadn't been taking pictures, she'd been pretending to take pictures. The only photograph to be added to the show for the rest of the run is of Mathern in performance getup, taken prior to the performance, just like the band photo. Why the two similar images are treated differently, I don't know. In here somewhere is the germ of a thought about the distance between photography and performance. As it stands, it's hard to say whether it matters that Mathern was only pretending to do something that nobody quite got that she was doing as opposed to actually doing something that nobody quite got that she was doing.

When the band finished, Mathern looked around, smiled and nodded at somebody, and a couple of guys brought a box and ladder and got her down. It was awkward. Ideally, she'd have become like any photographer (or like any photographer playing a photographer) at the end of a shoot, summarily wrapping up and leaving without so much as a smile to acknowledge that there had been a performance. Or, even better, there would have been an over-the-top climax followed by this anti-performance ending, completing the total split of the performer's personality. As it was, the ending seemed unthinking and almost ruined what was great about the performance.

Despite everything, Mathern is poking at a rich vein for herself in performance-photography and photography-performance. Much of her art up to now has been about the way people feel comfortable in popular culture, and uncomfortable with art and artists.

She has undeniable charisma and nerve, even if her mature work is ahead of her. The rest of her exhibition at Lawrimore Project is four photographs and a video along the theme of Moses Lake, the Eastern Washington town which, in the press release, is described as an inspiration because of its "disconnect" between white rural culture, a Native American chief nicknamed Moses, and Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. It's a sloppy seam where this all purports to come together, and Mathern, a native of Chicago and a city girl, doesn't seem remotely connected to the actual Moses Lake, which makes the work seem shallow. Not that it was possible to focus on it while Mathern-Doomhawk was in action. recommended

jgraves@thestranger.com