Lisa Liedgren
CoCA Northwest Annual, 1420 11th Ave, 728-1980.

Through July 13.Not everyone understands the difference between obsession and process. A friend of mine hates Lisa Liedgren's paintings--enormous, regular arrays of colored dots--because she can't stop picturing the artist as a sort of sweatshop dotmaker, chained to her desk for days, a hostage to mental imbalance or compulsion.

It's been easy to mistake dots in art for a symptom of insanity ever since Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama voluntarily committed herself to a Tokyo asylum in 1975. Kusama, a Warhol contemporary, covered everything around her--walls, furniture, clothing, people--with hallucinatory, high-key colored dots. "The illness," Kusama said, "lets me just be an artist because it allows me to be free from common sense." That's the authentic voice of obsession speaking; a process artist, like Liedgren, makes common sense her starting point.

"Process art" is an insider's term for work that's made by setting and following restrictive rules. Liedgren, for instance, always divides a sheet of paper into an absolutely regular grid. She draws a uniform, hollow dot at the center of every grid square, then applies another rule to fill each of the dots with color. This method strikes some people as less like art than like a monotonous job, but the process artist knows that rules are just common sense, since her creativity, for whatever reason, works best when the scope of variation is narrowed down--and, after all, doesn't she get to write the rules herself?

When process art works, it's generally delicate, beautiful, and overwhelming. This is certainly the case with Liedgren's large yellow diptych at CoCA's Northwest Annual. When you look at it, try to relax: appreciate the effort, but don't overreact. Admire, instead, the way process plays to the strengths of a certain kind of mind; respect the artist's choice of rules, and the judgment to know when they're necessary. J. S. MILLER

Softcore

Area 51, 401 E Pine St, 568-4782.

Through July 31.At Softcore's recent opening I couldn't shake a sort of implacable ambivalence. Maybe it had to do with the space: Area 51 seems less like a store than a museum, a glimmering monument to pop. The opening itself (its flows of people, music, drinks, art) only made things both better and worse. I imagined myself caught in a rarefied bubble, drifting off into some uncharted ether.

All of this may be a long-winded way of saying I'm ambivalent about pop. If, as the critic Arthur Danto has suggested, pop is art's closest approach to philosophy--that in a sense it "does" philosophy through its involuted surfaces--it also marks the rupture with any historical narrative of art. The effect can be fresh and a little unnerving, but much of the work here seemed, at first look, affectless, more a product of fatigue (as in the familiar anime references) than anything else. And might recent events suggest that these postmodern tropes are a screen for a still-volatile history lurking in the margins?

Fortunately a second viewing did the trick, not so much disproving my circling anxiety as keeping it in check; several of the pieces do make room for a more varied thematics. An untitled print by Dawn Smithson is refreshingly dark, its faceless figures floating on a montaged backdrop that seems lifted from interior design magazines. Dan Paulus' tiny Bouyant presents a hyperperfect depersonalized orifice, lodged somewhere between flatness and dimensionality. (Is it a butt? A belly floating in a minty sea?)

Sam Trout's Shattered Unicorn literally breaks the plane, its two panels hinged with white chain links. Brokenness is suggested in other ways: the ghostly, translucent ink, the image of a porcelain unicorn disintegrating into a scatter pattern of whorls and vectors. The work implies a profusion of spaces: hinged and porous, disassembled or curved to form hollows. Taken together they make for a polyvalence of approach, one that references pop art without being enclosed by it. COLIN BOOY

Kustom Shoe

Kuhlman Clothing, 2419 First Ave, 441-1999.

Through Aug 31.Much interesting work can be made around small philosophical questions (which are often more interesting than big airy abstractions). In this case, a show in a clothing store curated by Kipling West and Laurel Anderson, the very specific inquiry is "What is a shoe?" and the responses, while not startling, were pleasantly diverting.

A shoe is both protection and projection, an external entity that can become a psychological extension of the wearer. We ask our shoes to do a lot of work for us; beyond the physical reality of however many thousand steps we take every day, we ask them to tell the world something about who we are and what we love. (Who does not judge a person by the shoes he wears? Who?)

This may be why Blair Wilson's Sexy Bunion Shoes--a standard pair of heels with hypnotic op-arty bumps--are both beautiful and repulsive, because they exploit what they're supposed to hide. Similarly, Unfortunate Pustulant Pumps, by Arleann Lourdes, suggest a pair of feet covered in sores; anyone who's suffered blisters from new shoes understands how shoes can be both comforter and assailant (I also like the echo of "postulant" in the title, which suggests that shoes rule us rather than the reverse). Phil Erickson's Vampire Slayer shows a sexy stiletto heel rearing up out of a tree trunk--who knows, perhaps the same tree from which the killing stake was carved--a gorgeous, delicate, dangerous item.

But for all the suggestive imagery of fashion and pain, a shoe's essence lies elsewhere, which Yuki Nakamura reminds us with a giant pair of foot-shaped boots. Their emptiness is as significant as their shape and their ceramic blankness, a void in the series of choices we make as we dress every morning. Ultimately, however, Kustom Shoe isn't as interesting as last year's Kustom Purse; apparently not all containers are philosophically equal. EMILY HALL

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