Crossroads: New Art from the Northwest

Center on Contemporary Art, 728-1980.

Through April 30.

What can Crossroads do for CoCA? It has been put together by Michael Klein, the curator of Microsoft's art collection, and is a creditable bid for the reestablishment of CoCA's reputation. Many of the artists in this exhibition are by now familiar currency, and many of them are commercially represented--this certainly isn't the CoCA of the '80s, which didn't reflect the avant-garde (for want of a better term) as much as create it, so perhaps CoCA itself is at a crossroads.

Klein himself has an excellent reputation, and his credentials extend far beyond the nimbus of Redmond, but it's hard to shake the dissonant premise: a show for a once-great alternative space curated by the manager of a corporate collection.

It's been said that curators are the new artists, and this is worth thinking about, if only because a group show such as Crossroads is not so much about individual works as what curators call "conversations": what happens when you put one work of art next to another. The idea is that such comparisons call forth ideas and associations that the work alone does not, providing a kind of access to difficult art. Conversations often work very well; so well, in fact, that you're not aware of the hand behind the arrangement. But at Crossroads, the hand is everywhere apparent.

Klein has been very careful, very clever in his arrangements. He has put two of Robert Yoder's reassembled road signs on either side of a pair of photographs by Spike Mafford that Mafford has overlaid with text in Braille, so that the whole wall becomes a gloss on the idea of the readable made unreadable, on stubbornly fugitive meaning. On the wall perpendicular to this is a big painting of two figures by Alden Mason--a jittery image, intuitive the way a child's drawing is intuitive, with what look like little Yoder assemblages right where the figures' stomachs would be.

The facing wall contains two paintings by Matthew Landkammer--faint, barely-there stripes of color over elegant wood grain. In one of them, the stripes curve downward, creating an illusion of curve in the wood; next to this is a painted wood panel by Hans Nelsen that actually curves, undulating and rippling like mussed cloth, catching the light and throwing it around where Landkammer's absorbs it. And next to that is a painted trompe l'oeil bookshelf by Roy McMakin (although here it's a ridiculous term, since McMakin clearly isn't trying to fool anyone) next to a set of colored glass tumblers by Sean Albert: both of them abstractions of the everyday, differing in degree more than concept.

Not all of the conversations have such happy results. Claire Cowie's resin and acrylic hybrid creature figurines, put in close proximity to some little fruit tintypes by Susan Seubert, look too precious by half. Cowie's works are emphatically not precious, but rather more funny and dark--especially when they have plenty of air. Here, stuck under a vitrine in a room of small-scale work, the figurines are, as critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote of something else, "mugged by the installation." Julia Ricketts' abstracted takes on urban organization look less like distinct works than washed-out studies for the brighter Galen Hansen painting hung next to them.

Klein's selection falls roughly into two camps: the elegantly (and mostly sparsely) abstract, and what might be called cute figurative, which category includes Cowie's work, an amazing ceramic altarpiece by Jeffry Mitchell (featuring a pair of those lionlike Chinese dogs surrounded by adoring bunnies and bears), and two lady-heads by Claudia Fitch. One of Fitch's works, a small porcelain head called Potion Bottle #2, is hung next to another Mason painting, this one called Sister Claudia. Since it's apparent that nothing is accidental in Crossroads, you can be sure the punch line is deliberate.

And that, I guess, is my dumb quibble with this show of mostly very good work. You can't really take credit for anything you discover in the process of looking at it--it's more about trying to figure out what Klein intends than seeing and forming your own associations, your own relationships with the work exhibited. Is it possible for a curator be too clever for our own good?