At James Harris Gallery, Seattle artist Claire Cowie has only a small interior room to herself, but her show, Dead Reckoning, is just plain major. The centerpiece is a grid of paintings on paper. According to the artist's explanation—Dead Reckoning refers to a navigation system by which movement is calculated based solely on previous positions, generating cumulative distortion—she began with the center panels and worked outward, returning to previous panels to rework. The effect is entropic, like the screw dislocation in the growth of crystals that late (Spiral Jetty) artist Robert Smithson found so enchanting.
This is Cowie's fifth show at the gallery in a decade. Her imagery is consistent—stark, drippy landscapes populated with trees, animals, and people (sometimes all three combined into hybrid creatures), presented as single views but incorporating shifting scales and perspectives.
In Dead Reckoning, her colors have grown more intense, her patterning more dense, and she's using collage. The result is exuberant, throbbing. The scenes are like elaborately staged Victorian dollhouses crossed with the busiest and brightest city market in the world, fully stocked.
Subjects sit looking out of windows embedded at an angle inside other windows, each frame the color of a ripe tropical fruit or the deep-hued cover of an antique book. In the center panel, numbered eight, a row house falling off the axis of the earth is bounded by two upright others, one made of brick and sporting proper family portraits on the top floor, the other just a dripping royal-blue silhouette where a home has been excised from the spot. Three shadowy men stand above the buildings in the corner of a frame that hangs in the sky like a giant window; a tree juts up behind them. These are nonspecific places, but they do have systems, implied by flags that connote unknown citizenships, and designs that express a patchwork of unspecified heritages and histories.
The subject matter isn't overly serious—stony-faced cats fly down from one window, turning over as they go—but the undertones of the events are somehow dark. And by not seeming to take herself too seriously, Cowie surprises you when you slowly realize what a master painter she is. She's accomplished in so many techniques: applying paint so it's solid and saturated, dripped, staining the paper, hatch-marking, shadowing. She forces your attention to toggle between the aftereffect of what's literally happened on the surface (a stain has been made, for instance) and the illusion of three-dimensional space—while also providing collaged elements with striking patterns the eye just wants to caress.