TIDAL (EAST RIVER) Step back. Alice Wheeler
Gretchen Bennett SOIL Art Gallery

1317 E Pine St, 264-8061

Through March 28.

Like so many visual tropes in contemporary art, the found object has been soundly abused. It has become, in many cases, a shorthand for nostalgia, for the abandoned useless thing. It is also a fetish object, mysteriously recontextualized, given a new, ironic aura.

It is easy to put found objects into a shadow box, but we are not all Joseph Cornell; this is what the writer E. F. Benson once called (referring to something else entirely) serving up the recipe for the dish instead of the dish. Such misfiring is not the case, however, with former Seattle artist Gretchen Bennett's Tidal (East River), a wall-length installation with a pitch-perfect relationship between the found object and the idea that transforms it.

Tidal is made up of stickers cut apart and reassembled into an elongated form that happens to be the shape of a sycamore branch flipped over and repeated (the artist told me she "Rorschached" it), but could also be a map, with a thick, busy main route and tapering back streets, or an illustration of an arterial or nervous system or some other kind of elegant diagram based on, but not necessarily of, the natural world. The stickers are mostly scavenged from streetlights and other places that sticker artists post them, gathered by Bennett on her walks around her neighborhood in Brooklyn, so that they do represent a kind of diagram, albeit a random and intuitive one. Within the work's neat striations, you find bits of puffy neon-colored characters by KAWS, a nearly whole Obey/Giant, and a few advertisements--for Vans, for Brooklyn Industries, for other things you can't fathom. You might also, on close inspection, recognize the particular green and black crosshatching of Jake the Alligator Man (of Long Beach's Marsh's Free Museum), and the distinctly spaced letters of the Sub Pop logo; they are planted in this Brooklyn map like talismans against homesickness.

But in the end, Tidal (East River) is not so much about the parts, but the whole. It is more satisfying taken from a distance; the strips of stickers look both like bark and entwined veins; the little offshoot branches, many of them made of cut-up red bunnies, have a surprising and delicate gestural grace. The reflected-branch figure has a heraldic presence that is at once authoritative and also suggestive, and Bennett's allusion to the Rorschach test is spot-on: The shape asks to be interpreted, and then leads you slyly away from interpretation.

What Bennett taps here is the unexpected juncture between natural and unnatural, the shapes taken from nature that appear unexpectedly in manufactured life--even if it's the shape of a daily walk, mapped out in ephemera. The installation is both emblem and anxious object, about nature but not of it. There is a great deal of art made these days about living in an almost totally manmade world--a situation which you may or may not find ironic, depending on where you're standing. Like most good themes, it gives rise to a lot of mediocre art, much of it depending on a kind of gratuitous hysteria about the disappearing natural world, much of it more polemical than philosophical or, indeed, artistic.

The best work about our unnatural lives looks into gray areas, such as the one Bennett proposes, one that does not discard the real world (in one of the drawings at SOIL, a stickered trunk sprouts some "real" branches, drawn in pencil), but does not romantically privilege nature either. In a work she showed three years ago at Zeitgeist, Bennett assembled a series of found objects--a crumpled paper towel, the cutouts left when a stack of supermarket plastic bags is used up, a nail file--that, either alone or with very little help from the artist, resembled dogs. The beauty of this work, called Dog Eddy, was partly that so little was needed to transform nothing into something, and partly that it wasn't just the artist's will that transformed them, but the viewer's will to look for something in something else, to find the familiar in the unfamiliar--the dog in the nail file, the artery in the subway map, the tree in the Rorschach blot.