Jason Puccinelli
Vital 5 Productions
2200 Westlake Ave, 254-0475.
Through April 4.

John Seal
King County Art Gallery
506 Second Ave, Room 200, 296-7580.
Through March 30.

One thing they don't tell you about art is how exhausting it is. The experience of thinking about what the artist might be doing, of measuring your own reaction against the artist's intent, of throwing it against the wall of art's history and looking at it in context--it's a lot of mental work. Sometimes you just want a break.

Sometimes the break comes in a form that surprises you. A case in point is Jason Puccinelli's first solo show, In Your Face. Puccinelli takes as his model those murals found at carnivals and state fairs, large-scale paintings of freaks and gay-'90s couples with holes cut out to stick your own head into. On the surface it's a no-brainer, a nod to the absurdity of transporting yourself into another reality through mere surface. But Puccinelli makes the question of surfaces much more interesting by painting scenes of black humor and horror.

A summary of the works reads like a catalogue of contemporary discomforts: a spotlighted sodomy scene; a rural idyll in which lovers shoot each other up; a would-be suicide sprawled in a bathroom; a gynecologically detailed birth scene (with head-holes for both mother and emerging child). There's a stripper wrapped around a silver pole with a single male viewer leaning politely away. There's a Byzantine Christ and a woman mid-mammogram. That one of the paintings is a modern abstract work--part surreal, part Gorky--tells us still more about what we find uncomfortable about modern life.

The savvy viewers who filled Vital 5 Productions for the show's opening certainly knew better than to take any of these works personally. The very fact of the paintings as objects--a clear case of artifice, a cultural challenge to private things--made it possible to approach them with levity and a sense of irony. A photographer was available to take Polaroids for anyone with five dollars and the urge to pose. Creepy circus music provided a prevailing ambience of ambiguity; there were tofu dogs and popcorn available at the bar.

Now I consider myself morally aloof enough to enjoy art that is unflinchingly un-PC. I was therefore surprised that, when a man asked me and a friend to pose in the painting of two heil-ing Nazis, I balked. I immediately thought of my Jewish aunt who has said with certainty that she will never, ever set foot in Germany; my friend, who is German, politely turned down the man's request. This is how Puccinelli's work sneaks up on you. It appears to be all surface, a break from the usual mind-fuck of complicated art, but it tests your comfort level in ways that are more sly than immediately apparent. What is it, exactly, that these paintings ask you to do? Is it a moral endorsement to stick your head into a depiction of sodomy? Is it even more damning to take a picture of yourself there? Are you more or less implicated in the experience of looking at art by having your body be a part of it?

It also asks a question about the right of the artist to depict things he has no experience of. Puccinelli, who is in his late 20s, was probably not a Nazi or a Vietnam grunt (or a crucified Christ, for that matter), so is it tasteful--or even appropriate--for him to create works that invite the viewer to become these things? This question belongs to the continuum on which conservative artists tell you to write/paint/sing what you know, which in my opinion is the kind of pure bullshit that has led to the avalanche of memoirs and confessional coming-of-age novels. And yet I would not pose in the Nazi painting.

The opposite effect is at work in John Seal's show, My Friends. Seal takes Polaroids (again, the most instantly gratifying of media) of his friends and then transforms them into larger-than-life paintings. They're obviously personal distillations of the personalities of people we don't know, but writ so large that they achieve a kind of Warholian iconic status: Dominic with his aviator sunglasses, Mariko with her cat's-eye glasses and pink deely-boppers. They're impenetrable, these paintings, throwing you back on yourself, deflecting all attempts to know them. Where Puccinelli's paintings ask for your face in them, Seal's paintings are in your face. And in your face is a welcome break from mucking around in your head.

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