ONE SEARCHES IN VAIN AMONG THIS month's offerings in local galleries for art relevant to contemporary life. I spent last Sunday at a brunch where four people discussed for hours the increasing homogenization of our lives, particularly in the stores we shop at and the objects we buy; independently owned, quirky establishments are disappearing under the onslaught of Home Depot, Target, Costco, QFC, Amazon. This is not entirely bad; our dollars go further, we gain in convenience and broad selection what we lose in personal service and the ability to find oddities. But clearly, though we may shop at any or all of these establishments, we feel a loss: a sense that an era of small, walking neighborhoods, communities where people knew one another, and commercially purchased objects that did not exist in millions of identical copies, is irretrievably lost. We then appease this loss by occupying false versions of these ideas we never knew firsthand: boutique-lined streets like Broadway or Pike, New Urbanist communities in the suburbs, downtown malls built to look like traditional storefront shopping streets, farmer's markets run by preservationist quasi-governmental organizations.

This is not off the subject of local art. The art we see in Seattle is still idiosyncratic, individually fabricated, and constructed in time-honored ways that put a premium on craftsmanship. But it also reeks of false nostalgia and rarely engages contemporary issues, which is only a virtue if you enjoy anachronism and hiding under a cultural rock.

The pick of this month's litter is the photography show at Greg Kucera, drawing from three series of images by Bill Owens, titled Suburbia, Our Kind of People, and Working. These images of living rooms, Tupperware parties, Elks Club meetings, and such were the most contemporary looking images I saw on First Thursday, despite being more than 30 years old.

Elsewhere, a kind of nostalgia prevailed, for a time before any of the involved artists were born. This spirit was best summed up in Laurie Cinotto's delicate, complex collages of objects and 2D images at Soil: she showed her collages, and a series of mid-century domestic objects, in neat, clear plastic bags, suggesting the packaging and artificial presentation of another time's stuff in a straightforward manner.

William Christenberry, showing photographs of the South alongside related sculptures and paintings at G. Gibson, is all about selective attention. He sought out isolated relics among the built environment of the small-town South, capturing wonderfully goofy, ramshackle, and inauthentic buildings. His Red Building in Forest, Hale County, AL 1991 shows a small shack, proportioned more or less exactly like a Monopoly house minus the smokestack, covered completely in red-brick-patterned tar paper--even the door. Christenberry's eye is wonderful; this house, with its unartful false surface, could stand in for any number of the false fronts we encounter daily. But Christenberry is more interested in finding domestic exotica than in telling us anything about the way people live. I found myself wondering how close the nearest Wal-Mart was--Wal-Marts having more to do with small-town life in America than the quirky, often abandoned buildings that we (and Christenberry) find so picturesque.

This search for the picturesque probably has more to do with the dearth of contemporary imagery or ideas than any other force. In the same gallery, Marsha Burns showed Photographs from another place continued..., travel photography which relentlessly sought out decorative detail; rich, worn objects speaking to the past. And elsewhere, in too many shows to name, ornamental assemblages, figures in historical dress, images of no-longer-used objects, nudes, and decorative abstractions vied with each other for your attention.

Artists, by traditional inclination, seek out beauty, not truth, and in a world as unpicturesque as ours, it's understandable that artists would migrate toward the timeless--the nude, landscapes, animals--and away from the highway, the big-box store, computers, any object an average contemporary American might actually see or use in a typical day. One could argue that this is noble; that artists should seek out the sublime, not wallow in debased mundaneness. But this reduces their art to a hermetic world, sealed off from the real one, which distracts us from critical issues instead of engaging them. And it results in art that approximates the artificial timelessness of Restoration Hardware more than it authentically evokes any real past.

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