When you walk into Crawl Space this month, there is a big photograph straight ahead of you, a blurry portrait of the young artist Chad Wentzel sitting at some distance from the camera in the Olympic National Forest, communing. To your right is a video of Wentzel dancing, rave-style, his movements fast and fluid, his body animated by an inspiration that rises to the level of the spiritual, the ritualistic. Overhead is singing: the voice of Wentzel and his sister, a cappella, performing the simple Catholic round they learned in parochial school: Dona Nobis Pacem. The siblings are connected by speakerphone; both originally from Tacoma, he now lives in New York City and she lives in Alaska. They occupy the two poles of Northwest existence: the displaced rural and the displaced urban—the epitomization of a national condition of disconnect and longing.
Anne Mathern, Wentzel's best friend, is the one who took the large photograph of Wentzel in the forest. He was on a "quasi Vision Quest," a term that refers to the coming-of-age ritual of the native Salish people of this region, who keep their ritual discoveries secret. Whatever Wentzel is channeling in the woods and in his dance, it's secret, too: Mathern can grasp it only incompletely, in blurry focus or in awkward translation. The heart of the show is a video of Mathern performing Wentzel's rave dance herself. She goes through the movements carefully and earnestly, but all she can do is go through the movements. As Emily Pothast writes in a terrific review on her blog, this is the original unit of culture (the dance) transformed into meme.
Mathern watches Wentzel like a voyeur despite their avowed closeness, trying to grasp or reenact his moments of communion. She digs through stuff he leaves behind in the woods to find a stick he absent-mindedly whittled into a crochet hook. She rescues it and displays it as a sculpture in the gallery (both the stick and the large photograph are attributed to neither artist, as if they were naturally occurring), across from his monochrome (cream) crocheted banner reading "I Want To Go Home."
Craft, wilderness, primitive rituals—the longed-for, "quasi"-restorative systems of a "pre-apocalyptic" American generation—these have been the hallmarks of art by Mathern, Wentzel, and other young artists, too. There's a danger in adding "quasi" to anything: the danger of being evasive, ironic, insincere. But here, the longing is real. The show is a landmark that delivers brilliantly on these two artists' earlier ideas. But it's much more than that; I wish it were touring the nation. Because what they've created is also a portrait of their generation—its post–Burning Man, pre-Depression, idling reflectiveness—that anyone can tap into.