Out of Site: Fictional
Architectural Spaces

Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 543-2281.
Through Feb 2.

As I walked through Out of Site, I kept thinking about the old real estate joke (location! location! location!); I wondered if space was the new abstraction (when only a few months ago I had decided information was the new abstraction); I was, frankly, a little sad about the silly pun in the title.

However, what this show wants you to think about has something to do with the thing-ness of virtual reality--that is, just how virtual is it? Since pretty much the beginning of time, art has been involved in a real exploration of the virtual, since the cave artist wishfully scratched out a mammoth on a wall hoping to evoke one on his table. Artists may be interested in virtual reality, but they still have to work in the real, even if the real is a computer-generated image projected digitally into thin air.

So it's not the "fictionality" of these spaces that makes them interesting, but something much more formal. Since architecture is by necessity three-dimensional, the work presents a new wrinkle in the old abstract-versus-figurative argument, which is why the two-dimensional works in Out of Site are generally more compelling than the sculpture.

Why? Because the history of painting up to the Renaissance is the history of artists trying to re-create space the way they saw it. The discovery of perspective (so that rooms receded into the distance) and proportion (so that people fitted into the rooms they occupied) ranks among paintings' most potent discoveries, right up there with its dismantling in the 20th century when modern artists rediscovered the flatness their predecessors had so labored to deny.

Here you have works that catapult you right through the picture plane: abstraction combined with depth in the most unsettling way, as in Julie Mehretu's enormous painting, which seems to be all surface, a kind of über-modern composition, until you look at it closely and fall in among the layers. In Kevin Zucker's carbon-transfer drawings (made with a printer, I think, so that some of the information is lost, as it is so often in our technological lives) scale and proportion are slightly skewed, so that you are reminded of how the subconscious action of projecting yourself into the picture is part of your relationship to it.

Victoria Haven's wall constructions, made of office materials, evoke both time and space, months in a tiny cubicle measured out with tape and pins, in this case into a large-scale repeating form that (in a big move for Haven) droops off the wall in places, as shocking as a deep drop on a roller coaster. Her low-tech human touch is nice (not all virtual reality has to look like Tomb Raider) as it is in Nina Bovasso's drawings of Dante-esque towering piles of things that offset the foreboding with the sketchy quality of a Saul Steinberg cartoon.

Among the sculptural works, I did love Matthew Northridge's tiny replica of urban sprawl--made of little squares assembled by the Henry's installation staff according to the artist's instructions--but his collage-city of boxes cut out of office-supply catalogues is more interesting in what it asks about the most salient objects in a landscape. I also liked Shirley Tse's and Jason Rogenes' packing-material constructions, hers sculpted and deliberate, his found and assembled, both of them drawing on our innate ability to see spaceships in practically everything.

I pointedly did not love Patrick Meagher's installation, in which you sit in a Styrofoam chair and navigate around a computer-generated universe of modular forms. The point seems to be to frustrate you by allowing only so much information, so that you never know where you are, you're never allowed either to project yourself into the space or have a Godlike view of it (and because you determine what you see, it's kind of your fault). Maybe this nether-state speaks most clearly to our contemporary dislocation, but it's not particularly interesting beyond the initial observation.

I'm hard on Meagher because the question of where we are is so important, both to art and to humans. Isn't that how we negotiate nearly everything, by determining where we are relative to it? Shouldn't the answer be complete and thoughtful and philosophical--like Haven's, like Bovasso's--even if the news is very bad?