The El Camino Effect
Fuzzy Engine
2801 Market St, 720-1767.
Through Oct 28.

THE ARTISTS AT Fuzzy Engine would have you believe we all live under the spell of the "El Camino Effect," though we may not even know it. Like that titular curiosity of a vehicle--part car and part truck--their current show explores what happens when we try to have the best of two worlds at once. It's a peculiarly American desire, to have it all, and there's no shortage of examples: the mullet (both long and short hair); peanut butter and jelly in the same jar; bisexuality, even. Inevitably, the result is absurd.

Absurdity is such a great topic for art--I wonder that I don't see it more often than I do. I'm not talking about the low, long-distance laugh of irony or the ba-da-bum of slapstick, but the object of that old Fitzgeraldian saw about holding conflicting ideas in your head and not going batty. The appeal of this show--assembled at a new Ballard gallery--is that it moves past the easy one-liner hybrids and ultimately becomes a meditation on paradox and uselessness.

Fuzzy Engine is the brainchild of Walter Wright, of the late great Project 416, and if you never set foot in that space (probably because its closing got more press than its excellent shows ever did), you have a chance to regain some cultural cred now. Wright, with a group of other artists, has put together a gallery following a new model: exhibitions of work generated specifically for each show, based on themes that the artists develop together. The El Camino Effect is their first offering.

Sometimes absurdity is part and parcel of art-making. Cherub of the Odd, by Enrico Gropius, is a garden-style angel, weirdly elongated and covered in molten candy (which continues to melt and is creating a very interesting effect on the gallery floor). A candy thermometer is embedded in the cherub's long body, a nod to the artistic process and an acknowledgment of the inappropriateness of the material. Yet the spindly, serpentine cherub, with its blank smile and dangling, useless feet, is strangely appealing. Steve Veach's The Salesman's Sleep is an installation set against a paneled wall: two motel-style paintings with a nightstand below, and on the nightstand two glasses containing chocolate dentures, one white chocolate, one milk. The punch line, of course, is the dentures made of the very stuff that rots our teeth, but the real wit is in the alternative universe Veach (who is primarily a painter) has built. The paintings, far from being thrift-store finds, are digital re-creations painted over, laboriously re-creating the kind of homely work we see so frequently that we don't really see it. The very effort, in fact, is the paradox.

A more binary paradox--that of attraction and repulsion--is at work in Leslie Clague's Prototype for Comfort Enclosure, which presents an upholstered chair made of industrial felt and enclosed around the top so as to effectively blind the person sitting in it. Like those pod chairs from the '60s, it's patently anti-social furniture. The lobe-like seat is disconcertingly genital-looking, and the work is hung from the ceiling in such a way that it would dump you out if you sat in it (by the way: don't try). Here is an object completely divorced from its primary function, now something only to contemplate, even to fear: a looming, not particularly benevolent presence.

The show's structure creates a variation on the viewer's usual gallery experience. It becomes a kind of guessing game that pulls the imagination in different directions, and challenges you to think abstractly. Patrick Holderfield's genetically mutated piñatas acknowledge the anxiety implicit in hybridization; Blair Wilson's Dog bite, the incredible rampaging Bill Bixby, and between what we have to fight and what we have to become to do the battle--an intricately rendered image of a man morphing into a wolf, with some unidentified creature in between--requires a larger leap in thought, to transformation, the self divided against itself, and the possibilities of both.

Truly idea-driven shows are so rare lately. The El Camino Effect covers a lot of ground--humor, philosophy, visual sophistication--and while I've seen better work by some of these artists, the show as a whole is quite satisfying, and it continues to leak out ideas in spite of itself. The last thing I noticed was that Holderfield's sculptures are all priced (randomly?) at $418, as if to wink at art and commerce, the most absurd hybrid of them all.

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