You don't look at anything directly in Image Transfer: Pictures in a Remix Culture. It's the big new show of remixed pictures by 12 contemporary artists at the Henry Art Gallery, in which you're seeing versions of something somebody else has already looked at, or may be looking at right now, somewhere else. There are blown-up prints of detailed scans of art ads. There are paintings of photographs of sculptures that themselves (the paintings) have carved-up surfaces. Yes—the mind reels. Hanging ominously from the center of the ceiling in each gallery is a reflective surveillance dome, tracking your moves as you track the art.

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But so what? There's nothing new about appropriation (literally). And these 12 artists are far from alone in regenerating existing images. Why did the museum choose these 12? How do the specific works illuminate each other? What is the show's argument? Curator Sara Krajew­ski's presentation doesn't provide answers to those questions. Image Transfer instead feels like 12 solo shows, each entirely lacking in explanatory material. The only text, on a panel at the show's entrance, presents clichés as revelations in a distressingly pseudointellectual voice. An excerpt of how the museum describes IT:

This exhibition proposes that these artists mark the progression of intuitive practices that are thoroughly at ease with today's hyper-fluid circulation of images. In our digital age of fair use and open source, these attitudes demonstrate how far traditional notions of the authority and primacy of source materials have shifted toward a fluent rethinking of the way we value and interact with images.

The basic claim—that we are in a "digital age of fair use and open source" marked by the "hyper-fluid circulation of images"—is simplistic at best. However much "traditional notions of the authority and primacy of source materials" have been changing—since the invention of the printing press—those traditions are met with a renewed backlash: As images proliferate, so do lawsuits over who is allowed to do the circulating. And an art museum is no image-topia. The "no photo" signs in the galleries of Image Transfer tell one of many understories beneath the marketing-speak of "our digital age of fair use and open source."

A little playfulness and unconventionality could have gone a long way in presenting this show, following the cue of the art. Kelley Walker's trio of offset color posters (hung, unfortunately, with a doorway breaking them up) is based on a crazy old ad for Braniff airlines. It features Sonny Liston and Andy Warhol—both outsiders, for very different reasons—glamorously sharing a row on an airplane. (What a ride that would have been.) Walker presents them cut apart, facing different directions, in full color and black-and-white, and obscured by star shapes and pictures of unwrapped chocolates. It's literal and wild; Braniff drove to the edge of a cliff, and Walker pushes right off.

The museum might have emphasized the hoarding. These artists are piling up images. Some are forensic files poured out as if a mystery needs solving. Karl Haendel scatters his large and small pencil drawings over an entire wall. In what order would you arrange the following drawings: Gary Cooper from High Noon, a page of a musical score, a photographic negative of a screaming baby and another of a power cord, a cracked mirror, an incidence of lightning, and another artist's work? It looks as if Haendel is trying to figure it out, too.

Matt Keegan's Images Are Words/Las Imágenes Son Palabras is a demonstration of the futile attempt to fix meaning. It's a roomful of images that his mother cut out from magazines and uses to teach ESL classes. They're mounted on walls, laminated and strewn on top of a table in a mound, and annotated by Keegan's mother in a two-channel video. What Keegan's mother teaches is not necessarily what you might see in the image—pictograms are only translations. There's a tenderness here that brings to mind Chinese artist Song Dong's 2006 installation Waste Not (currently at Vancouver Art Gallery), in which, after the death of his father, the artist's mother neatly arranged the vast universe of household objects she'd amassed over a lifetime and presented them in a gallery setting.

Siebren Versteeg's White Flags surrender to the state of being overwhelmed. Each one is a large piece of fabric waving in the gentle wind of the museum's HVAC system on a pole of white fluorescent light, the fabric printed with reproductions of thousands of tiny found images. Each nation of pictures has no linked identity; it's just a mass.

Several pieces by Jordan Kantor all riff on a mundane photograph Kantor took of a row of people sitting on a curb shading their eyes, looking at a far-off eclipse. That original photograph is not shown, but appears in secondary versions: as an oil painting of the photograph's negative, as a sketch left by transfer carbon on paper, as a screen print on Mylar. A vitrine table provides more information. It contains Kantor's palettes, various other prints of the eclipse picture, and a map of how everything (including the map) is to be installed in the gallery. At the terminus is an art-history book laid open to a spread about a not-very-well-known Manet painting called The Railroad. Words, paintings, and cartoons alongside the main illustration of the painting assist in "reading" The Railroad—unpacking its secrets, getting it, locking it into art-­historical place. But the distillation is also a multiplication. Just as Kantor's original photo—of the astronomical event of visual obstruction—is filled in by versions of it, it's also increasingly distant.

Image Transfer seems to want to add a chapter beyond 1980s appropriationists, or the Pictures Generation, with Krajewski arguing in her catalog essay that the image has finally become the ultimate "mobile sign," disconnected from context and floating. But Kantor's dual distillation-multiplication model—circling ever closer but never arriving at a center, like the choreography Robert Smithson famously created in his Spiral Jetty—seems more apt. Does greater access to seeing, altering, and reproducing images represent a substantive break in our relationship to their sources, or does it just continue the exploration of ideas as old as art itself? We may assume that mechanical and digital operations—the film photograph and the screengrab, say—are fundamentally different processes that "shift... [our] traditional notions of the authority and primacy of source materials," but what if they're not and they don't? Which values endure despite our efforts to dislodge them?

For one, the link between image making and control. Amanda Ross-Ho's mirrored security domes on each ceiling are framed in canvases, like threatening pregnant bellies poking through painting surfaces (with a nod here to Seattle artist Jennifer Zwick's photograph of precisely that a few months ago). They're just called Camera (Aerial View).

In the case of her Camera 1, Camera 2, some explanation is called for. What you see are two blown-up pictures with curved views reminiscent of the surveillance domes. The two pictures are similar: In each is a view of a wood-floored room with an unidentifiable white rectangle in the center. The rectangle looks like it was set up to obstruct the view of something—the camera, whose head peeks out very slightly, or maybe it's not a camera. Are you paranoid? The picture is large, but the image is so compromised that you know the scale is a lie; how big is this place through this looking glass, and what is the glass?

What I didn't find out until later—this is where the museum could help—is that Ross-Ho made these two pictures by scanning small parts of an official photograph of Jeff Koons's famous reflective bunny, which she found in an ad in an art magazine. The room that seems to be through the lens is actually the one thrown back by the two-tiered belly of the rabbit. If the rabbit were rescaled to fit these photographs, it would break through the roof of the Henry like some shiny/cute monster. Art is always scarier than museums want it to be. recommended