Alexander Schweder
Esther Claypool Gallery, 264-1586.

Ephraim Russell
King County Art Gallery, 296-7580.

Both through Oct 27.

Kustom Purse
Kuhlman Clothing and Furnishings, 441-1999.
Through Nov 29.

Every so often I get this catalogue in the mail from Levenger, which sells fetishistic accessories for readers and writers (as if books themselves weren't the reward--but everyone needs accessories, I guess). The catalogue features a crescent- shaped lap desk, with an optional stand that "lets you keep your lap desk conveniently at attention, looking as if it belongs in a modern-art museum."

Annoying, but true. I suppose a narrow swath of wood might call to mind certain minimalist sculpture, but here the value-added claim of art just seems promiscuously justifying. Jesus, buy the lap desk if you want. But don't drag art into it.

For me, this issue is decided on a case-by-case basis, and I'll allow a lot of leeway for inventive industrial design in the realm of what is and isn't art. I had the chance to invert my thinking by seeing three shows in which artists present everyday objects as art, with utility and reality shadowing the idea rather than driving it.

Where did we first learn these lessons? All together now: Marcel Duchamp. The thing recontextualized, the assertion of the artist's will, the collaboration of sense and nonsense. Lovely, then, that Alexander Schweder has put together a show called Abjecture, with a series of urinals called Peescapes, each of which pays homage to and tweaks the master. The homage, of course, is the toilet, and the glorification of acts we'd rather forget we perform. The urinals are presented in diptychs, and in each pair, one has an elongated trough for girls. The drains are reimagined as sensuous sculpture; one pair has drains that are clearly vaginal in shape. They have an undeniably jolly air, especially a Siamese set for joined-at-the-hip couples.

The tweak is that they are useful. Rather than wrenching the functional object out of context, Schweder has created urinals that work (although they are not plumbed in the gallery, so hold it). Does this make them less art than bathroom fixture? Of course not--they cleverly straddle the breach between art and life that seems so consternating lately.

Ephraim Russell, in Prototype, takes a contrarian position, which is to suggest items that might be useful, but that really are not. He employs the language--both visual and linguistic--of industrial design and merchandising without actually making anything functional in the traditional sense. Walking through his show is uncommonly like walking through Boeing surplus: You know the objects must be good for something, but you have no idea what.

He intensifies this feeling by using colors that hark back in our collective design memory to the pre-digital early '60s: the beige of old computers, a pink that's more dirty than dusty rose, the steely blue of file cabinets. The sculptures are impervious to interpretation, except that they look like things we recognize, like fax machines and extendable-handle suitcases and Tupperware. They seem to be interactive, but in fact are not--nothing I did could change the LCD message or the measuring-device reading on the Dimensionator (a Shawn Wolfean title recalling Wolfe's famous Installer/Remover). Program Ready continued to spray out its peppermint smell no matter how much I danced in front of it or (surreptitiously) pressed the buttons. Prototype is a lot more philosophically slippery than the Peescapes: By contrast it suggests a lot of futile workmanship, but it has a poignant purity, an idealism about art's utility in the world--protectively sheathed in dark Orwellian humor.

For Kustom Purse, 30 artists built handbags, for the most part in their own idioms. It makes for a fun guessing game if you're familiar with local artists, but that's not all: They're displayed in a pricey Belltown clothing store, which, intentionally or not, upends some received notions about value and fashion. My favorite bags were Leslie Clague's Pair Your Blackjack with a Jaunty Matching Bag (the ultimate thug accessory) and Saya Moriyasu's Stacking Purse Set (are you enough of a fashion victim to carry three at once?). Everyone does need accessories.

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