What kind of art comes out of a "research university"? Art may not be systematic or quantifiable, but it is not the unmoored free-for-all that hippies, mystics, and marketers want it to be, either. Artists are geeks, too. And the 17 artists and artist teams at the University of Washington's Jacob Lawrence Gallery this month are geeks both in and outside of art. Each has a non-art obsession, and Parallel Processing features the idiosyncratic products of their self-directed geek-outs, in video, collage, photography, performance, sculpture, web-page printouts, and one shadowy sponsorship.
Co-curator Michael Van Horn explains that the exhibition (also curated by artists Sol Hashemi and Elizabeth Abrahamson) was meant to demonstrate to art students how to be focused but loosen up. Each of these artists is very focused, both on "the turf of art" and on some other discipline—design, business, advertising, gardening, music, poetry. This isn't the same thing as transmedia, says Van Horn. It's the transculturalism of recent contemporary art, a magpie discipline grabbing at shiny bits of other realms, as Seattle painter Matthew Offenbacher (a 2013 Stranger Genius Award finalist) describes it. What really gets exchanged, rather than the conditions of various art mediums, are the rules and conditions of different games.
Though the artists range from underemployed fresh grads to long-ago-tenured professors, with plenty of thirtysomethings in between, Parallel Processing is a product of the internet age with a vengeance. The shadowy sponsor of the exhibition, listed on promotional materials, is a social-media marketer. BH Ideas has a Facebook page and a pseudonymous Chief Visionary Officer, Bill Hitchert. In the gallery, he deposited a few promotional logos and Coke Zeros on a folding table. Hitchert once wrote a piece for The Stranger. It was snappy and enthusiastic, and involved the saying of "namaste" and the dropping of a great number of hashtags. His regular Facebook postings are a hilarious satire of social-media marketing, which basically means the marketing of nothing more than the premise that social mediation is good. On his Facebook page, there are kittens, percentages of increased traffic, and "connections between idea people." No ideas but in connections, William Carlos Williams might have said. You wish you didn't get the joke. The sponsorship of Parallel Processing, like the "company" itself, is nothing but a linkage.
Likewise, the tone of the whole show is amusing, smart, and sometimes eerily two-dimensional, like a skim off the surface of the web. That, or folksy. Two artists from Oregon, working under the name Rose Curea Partners, set up a Sterno fire on the steps of the art building to serve you s'mores and chat, and this chat may include ostensibly researched facts such as that graham crackers were originally marketed as digestive aids.
This being art, the "research" is a savvy stumbling about as much as a pursuit of innovation. There are beautiful moments in and among the ugly nuggets, and appeal in both what's fresh and what's been predigested. No style or substance commitments are made. The effect can be irritating and off-putting, or pleasing.
Jason Hirata summons the sublime with an instructional video. He set two large screens on the floor, so close that the video in the back requires effort to see. The two play together like a person and her dreams, parallel processing. Two speakers sit on the floor in front of the screens, also one in front of the other. The video footage alternates between Hirata Vanna-White-ing how he's hacked his camera, and scenes shot with the new machine (special lenses, odd focus, what appears to be a constant faint rainfall). He's shooting in his house, where the light and architecture are dusty and lovely, and in a foresty outdoor environment. The scenes are classic Northwest, the technology back-end-ish—Microsoft, not Apple. Out of the speakers come what seem like nature noises. It's a local landscape painting, of course Wi-Fi-connected.
An earlier era in computing resonates with an earlier era in sculpture in Parallel Processing. Claude Zervas's chain-saw-carved wood bears have lights for eyes. The lights are rainbow colors. They flash and change color, Zervas's website says, "according to the words found in a story about a boy, his father, and small animals that steal camp food." Matt Browning also works with wood. He's been known to whittle tiny, painstakingly time- consuming sculptures. This time, he took a single block of wood. Using a box cutter and a scroll saw, he cut several chain links out of that single block, making sure they stayed connected at their corners. Then he spread apart the chain links and hung the corners on nails in the gallery wall—expanding the original block into a large puzzle, a spatial riddle that looks like a tic-tac-toe board. It's a trick and a game, a magical fabrication of something out of nothing. It's also a gorgeous piece of minimalist sculpture. The value is derived from a labor-driven, slow-living quality that feels rare and reassuring. That's the sculptural equivalent of finding work in taking a break.