James Harris Gallery, 309A Third Ave, 903-6220. Through April 6.
Since we are no longer surprised by abstract art, looking at it has become a kind of guessing game, and Los Angeles painter Michelle Fierro seems fully aware of it. The work in her last Seattle show, two years ago, looked like setups for games with unimaginable, perhaps haphazard, rules: a board with no logic, opaquely painted here and scribbled on there, with pieces of different sizes and colors (globs of paint, elegantly calcified dust bunnies, God knows what else). These last items are the bits and pieces Fierro finds in the studios of her friends; they are relics of art-making, re-elevated to art status in her cryptic and elegant paintings, more evocative than not of Cy Twombly's bizarre fields of modest, haptic scribbling. The titles of the paintings--Naming Names, Just So, Line it Up--are references to art-making, collapsing the distinctions between process and product, unfinished and finished, parts and debris. There's a lovely conceptual motion to this, a thought given form and direction.
Like Twombly's work, the nonsensical comes to make its own sense based on the attention and stream of ideas brought to it by the viewer, who becomes her partner in meaning. In her previous show and now, with seven new paintings, Fierro makes engagement seem easy; her work flatters our intelligence, stroking us toward revelation. The best painting, Wiping Off, is a luminous Caribbean-blue field with a string of sky-blue orbs drifting through it and one beaky lump of paint refusing to melt into the background. There's an implied action here; you want to pick that piece off, like a scab. The bumpy parts don't always register as interruptions, but rather opportunities, as if the two-dimensional were trying to break into a new realm.
For all the serious thought and question-begging Fierro's latest work engenders, it is also patently friendly. Like a crossword puzzle, like slow-cooked beef stew served in a fancy restaurant. Like a cheerleader who is popular and Phi Beta Kappa but is unexpectedly nice to geeks. EMILY HALL