Patrick Holderfield: Pilgrim
James Harris Gallery
Through Sept 30.

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Behind the awning at 309 Third Avenue South this month is not the James Harris Gallery, but an eerie forest where at some point there was a fire. The trees are black, with charred, pointy branches. A green heap of melted-together animal parts—a dog's barrel chest on its side conjoined with a delicate sitting deer torso extending into the long neck and shadowy eyes of a swan—is positioned on the floor in front of a weather-beaten shack with red light seeping out through the window blinds. Everything is a little smaller than it should be, like maybe we have wandered into a bedtime story for a criminal.

This all sounds put-on, but there is a freshness, a directness, and an emotional honesty that bonds viewer to art immediately, without the safety or irony of a fourth wall. How does Patrick Holderfield do it? I don't entirely know, and this mystery is part of the pleasure. I do know he has mastered several styles and mediums and likes to mash them up. The virtuosic wall drawings accompanying the sculptural installation provide a map of his stylistic polyglotism: cartoonish black trees, cinematic rings of painted fire, pencil-drawn, photorealistic crashed vehicles, pink or red silhouettes of slightly grotesque animals—all layered with mysterious sketchbook shapes and expressive bursts of smoke and color.

More and more artists are presenting drawings or studies as finished artworks, and Holderfield does so enthusiastically. He gestures toward the visual completeness of a well-modeled, finalized shape, but lingers in the productivity of messes. Every bit of scenery feels like it is underway, being distorted, destroyed, or remade into a new version of itself. The sculptures look drawn, made in the same style and taken directly from the wall drawings. The animals are mangled, but their suburban-lawn-green bodies are classically modeled and positively fertile—just frozen, mid-shape-shift.

This is a whole world that you are entering (which makes the installation of a large striped painting by another artist in the back of the gallery particularly unfortunate). The mood is still, yet threatening. The tree branches jut into your way as you walk. They grab like fingers pulling you close to the trees and to the subtext of the installation. Hiding beneath the blackened surfaces are layers of bright paint, as though 19th-century romantic landscape painting itself, with its fiery sunsets, were waiting to leap out of these post-apocalyptic remains and assert its unifying, transcendental perspective. That isn't happening. No single perspective or scale emerges. Trying to bring it all together, you're continually traveling toward an impossible, irresistible destination: a world that coheres. On the way there's violence, confusion, manipulated imagery, and even the destruction of trees. No wonder this feels like home.

Jaq Chartier: Blindsight
Platform Gallery
Through Oct 7.

Jaq Chartier's paintings are the best kind: the kind you have to see in person. Things happen when you stand in front of them. The dots glow and bleed and the shapes refuse to come into focus, so much so in one work at Platform Gallery (L. Burnt Orange [net]) that an orange web pattern quivers up through the eye, into the brain, and just absolutely fools around. The brain should be able to process the logic, the simple fact of that stingingly fuzzy image, but it resists, and then utterly loses the battle to the painting. Rothko should have been so lucky.

These are not modernist abstractions, really, or color-field spiritualisms. They are scientific experiments that Chartier calls "tests." She uses an eyedropper to apply ink to a prepared wood panel, and then adds several layers of milky acrylic and spray paint to observe the behavior of the inks. The basic forms are grids: fields full of repeated shapes at various intensities. The names of the inks are written in pencil either on the side of the wood panel or on the panel itself, outside the scope of the painting, which can take up only a part of the surface. This is a meandering science, in that Chartier is not testing anything beyond her own ability to make stains that arrest the people looking at them, that interact with each other, using all the juicy power of color. She is also testing her ability to let go of the inks, to see if they can still surprise her after all these years. There's an innocence she wants to get back, she says, a quality of not controlling what's going to happen in the final image.

This is difficult, because Chartier has spent so much time on and knows so much about what she is doing. Her copious notes testify to this. The inks are listed on one axis, the treatments on another, and so she graphs her process. (This is also her way of effacing her process by labeling it so baldly.) She achieves that sensation of wild disorder in a few pieces, but another few feel too controlled, as stacks of stains fall into regularized rows. That said, each of her stains has a life of its own. The lined and blurred edges are idiosyncratic and innocently referential, calling to mind the blinding rays of reflections and explosions, the sweeps and swipes of Morris Louis paintings, the enlightenment of luminism, the petri dishes of human progress.

My favorite work in the show is a video-and-painting pair that not only is visually seductive but is also a poignant tale about an artist's struggle to make fresh work while at the same time maintaining absolute commitment—not unlike a marriage. Chartier left a panel of purple ink fingers dominating a white background in the window of her studio, and the sun stained the highly fugitive ink for more than a year there, until it faded into red and then pink marks straining to stay visible. At first, she scanned the panel's surface into the computer every morning to track its changes, and eventually she slowed down the scanning because the changes were so minute. But what she ended up with is a time-lapse video of the fading, paired in the gallery with the faded work itself, which will continue to fade further. Whoever buys this will be lucky. It will be an honor to be witness to the birth, life, and death of an artwork—the whole thing, right there for the seeing.

Eric Eley: Intricate Matter
Lee Center for the Arts
Through Oct 27.

Eric Eley's installation, Intricate Matter, has to be seen from both inside the gallery and across the street. One view is not enough. From the inside, the piece is an elongated and many-legged insect, or possibly a sci-fi prop or a snippet of architecture, and definitely the work of a mathematical mind. It is a series of wood arms that extend from the wall and are suspended from the ceiling by silver-painted twine made to look like engineered cable. The arms bend at various angles and blossom at certain points into trapezoids with fabric upholstered to the wood frames. On the flip side, from across the street, the image flattens and reads as a sinuous line leading through a range of mountains. Or maybe it's a dissected landform, one that has been atomized and is waiting, midair, to fall to pieces. This is quite a contrast.

The piece isn't totally successful inside or outside, but with both views, you've got something. It's also nice to know that Eley developed the work while reading about Louis Slotin (subject of the new play Louis Slotin Sonata, which is premiering in the theater adjoining the gallery). Slotin was an amateur nuclear scientist who ended up accidentally radiating himself and others to death in an experiment. Eley is an amateur mathematician and scientist himself: you can feel that in his structures. The 2005 UW MFA grad had a shipwreck-looking piece in a corner of Platform Gallery earlier this summer, and in order to make it, he just started tacking pieces of wood to the wall, doing what André Breton might have acknowledged as automatic construction work, after which he toned it down by adding pieces of wood that would act as shaping planar surfaces. That is not how he built Intricate Matter—not exactly, anyway. There was more planning.

He knew how much length and depth he would have at the Lee Center's narrow gallery, through which theatergoers have to pass, and he sketched out his plan. Then, he built according to his whim, which accounts for the fabulous switches in angle midplane (they make me think of Cris Bruch's willful wood constructions) that you see in the piece. I like Eley when he's tempering planning with instinct, and this project involved a little more planning than instinct. But it is so well thought through that when you cross the street, you get the payoff.

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Eley has just one flat work in the show: Plain Space, which he calls a resin drawing. It is a map of nothing, a layered portrait of information that leads nowhere except inside itself. The thing is gorgeous. We should watch this artist.