The Dogs of Medina
Vital 5 Productions, 254-0475. Through Jan 10.

ARTISTS OPERATE in a wide, deeply gray area--what you might call a cognitive dissonance, knowing that their work will likely never earn them a living, but continuing to make it anyway. There's a great intellectual leap between art and commerce, something artists settle privately with themselves, sometimes perhaps unaware of to what degree their work may or may not be compromised by the implicit fact of a paying audience. This is nothing surprising, merely the byproduct of living in the midst of a contradiction.

Greg Lundgren, the brains behind Vital 5 Productions, is very, very interested in those gray areas, gaps, and leaps. His productions (there is no better word for them, since they are never only exhibition, or only theater) explore and exploit ideas of art, money, and value. Vital 5, formerly housed in a Belltown space that was--not surprisingly--destroyed, has resurfaced on Westlake Avenue, and its inaugural show, The Dogs of Medina, is very much about all these things.

It consists of portraits of dogs from that wealthy Eastside suburb, and the idea was to bring together artists and their clientele, people whose worlds don't generally overlap, even conceptually. Lundgren sent an actress out to take photographs of the pets, and the artists who contributed work, created from these photographs, could paint the dogs any way they chose, either respectfully, in the grand old tradition of patron and portrait, or not. (In fact, the show's best piece, by Jason Puccinelli, combines both aspects: In it, three dachshunds pose nobly with bright red erections.) Either way, the artist worked with full consciousness of the intended audience, and the intended audience, for the most part, showed up at the opening.

The reception wasn't the usual lineup of sour wine and regular art-world suspects. People brought their dogs, who were generally very well-behaved guests (a discreetly placed pile of dog shit turned out to be fake). A wandering mariachi band thrummed out stirring, dirge-like songs. Tequila flowed like water. A heaping silver bowl of dog treats sat on the table. And it wasn't the same old art-world chitchat, but seemed livelier, less bitchy. The work didn't sell off the walls--far from it--but that wasn't the point. The point was to fill the gallery, and the gallery filled.

Lundgren himself is an artist, but for him the word spans many genres. He paints, writes, makes films, designs theater sets, but dislikes the notion that the art stops when the piece is finished. To his mind, it's more interesting when it's a component of a larger idea. Like J. S. G. Boggs, the American artist who created a legal furor in London by creating gorgeous and intricate replicas of pound notes and trading them for goods and services, the performance is as important as the work. Boggs delights in the negotiation that takes place over the exchange, the reactions, even the refusals. And, also like Boggs, Lundgren's work frequently inquires into the concept of art's value, as in a project last year in which he sent 10 of his own paintings to the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The paintings, he explained in a letter to the gallery director, were the gallery's, to dispose of in any way they saw fit. They could sell them, throw them out, eat dinner off them--as long as they documented it with a disposable camera he included in the package. While the results were a little vague (you couldn't, finally, tell what was happening in the photos), the questions raised by this experiment, by letting the work go out into the world so cavalierly, went beyond the shock of the gesture. Did it mean that Lundgren didn't value his work? And where does the work acquire its value, anyway--is it in the arbitrary validation of a gallery? Or when it's sold? Or is it simply in the creation?

Lundgren's next show, an exhibition of dysfunctional chairs, asks this question directly: If something has no use, does it have no value? And the value of money, and where you put it, is really at the heart of Vital 5. Lundgren funds his gallery and his many projects (such as the propaganda organization Artists for a Work-Free America) by working his ass off and, he says, spending every cent. These expenditures are rewarding and also nerve-wracking--the return, both financially and intellectually, is never certain--but Lundgren knows that the best ideas grow out of contradictions. "If you're nervous and uncomfortable," he told me, "you're probably doing it right."

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