Claude Zervas

James Harris Gallery

Through Aug 20.

The high point of The County, Claude Zervas's uneven show at James Harris Gallery, is also the object closest to the ground. Nooksack uses small fluorescent lamps (those found in digital scanners), inverters, transformers, and wire to trace its subject, the eponymous river, as it journeys toward Puget Sound. Thirty-two glowing bulbs, each a nine-inch tube suspended a couple feet or so above the floor, create an aerial view of the majestic waterway; beneath them, the bulbs' hardware flows along the carpet to the wall. It's as if the fine lines of a topographic survey had been grossly enlarged, sheathed in cool white plastic, and unfurled at your feet.

The entire gallery floor feels commanded by Nooksack, a sculpture that occupies space with the serene authority and spread of a "natural" phenomenon. Zervas's no-holds-barred use of his medium, taken to a new scale in this work, is totally satisfying. His lamps and cords remain emphatically what they are, even as they evoke what they are not. In a body of work investigating the Northwest landscape through a heavily technological lens, Nooksack hits a bull's-eye. But the prevailing spirit of The County, despite or perhaps made worse by Nooksack's brilliance, is one of too much happening in a room without a thesis.

La Bûche, the gallery's postcard pick for the show, is a wall-mounted work composed of six feet of a tree that has been halved lengthwise, hollowed out, and rigged with fluorescent lamps and "custom electronics." The bark's knots contain slowly pulsing LEDs that glow in changing colors. A bright-green halo emanates around the object from within, bathing the wall behind it in an eerie fluorescent light.

Over the top as it is in title and appearance, there's also something jarringly objective about La Bûche. The precision of the cut and the perfectly straightforward presentation give it the quality of a carefully displayed specimen, something removed from a psychedelic forest in which the primeval and the electronic have grown irrevocably combined. Considered this way, La Bûche cries out for more examples of the landscape whence it came—the locus of that "complex dialogue between nature and culture" which the gallery's wall text positions as Zervas's subject. And yet La Bûche has no friends in this show. It seems like they're out there somewhere, but missing; one proceeds from work to work, and medium to medium, without enough connective tissue to keep the promised conversation going.

Another tree-related work, and one of two unique digital prints in the show, is Veneer, a striking close-up of a sheet of wood. Zervas has worked the surface of the print with color shifting urethane paint to achieve an outstanding three-dimensional effect. The board's coarse grain leaps off the paper, remaining freakishly sharp no matter how close one gets. Mounted in a conventional mat and frame, Veneer comes across as an object posing as an image: It is a piece of "veneer."

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The uniquely human urge to represent, to which nature is by definition indifferent and immune, is a topic at the crux of Zervas's chosen problem. Veneer makes fine sport of it—while it can. Taking us into this rewarding territory for a too-brief moment, Zervas's image/object presents another good idea that The County can't carry far enough. Like La Bûche, Veneer must compete with too many different tactics and lines of inquiry to fully realize its case.

Dominating these in size is Forest #3, a large and gloomy video projection that overtakes the wall across from Nooksack. Manipulated by a computer program crafted by Zervas, a former software engineer, the digital photograph of a forest gradually dissolves pixel by pixel until it's reduced (expanded?) to a field of homogenous blobs. Just when we truly cannot see the forest for the now-melted trees, the original image comes creeping back, only to dissolve again. What do we learn from this? Didn't the boundaries between abstraction and reality disintegrate a long time ago? Cold and self-contained, Forest #3 loops on and on. Meanwhile on the floor, the infinitely generous Nooksack has become a topsy-turvy power system in which electricity feeds into, and creates, the river.