Mustang Summer
SOIL Artist Cooperative, 1317 E Pine St, 264-8061.

Through Sept 1.

SOIL has proven to be one of the most durable of Seattle's artist cooperatives, surviving (by my count) four changes of gallery space, entire turnovers in membership, and an ongoing indecision about whether or not "soil" is written in capitals or not. I think the group's mutability has been the key to its survival, since many cooperatives tend to die out shortly after the last founding member leaves for greener, often commercial pastures. SOIL rolls with the times, occasionally putting up very good shows indeed.

The current show is one of these, the best by far that's appeared in its new gallery, a clean and professional-looking space on Capitol Hill. Not that clean and professional--the much-maligned white cube--is the end-all, nor is it always the best choice for artists exploring innovative ways of installing and showing art; but for SOIL it feels earned, grown-up. Appropriately enough, Mustang Summer is built around the idea of contrivance (what's more contrived than the isolation of objects inside white walls?); but the hook is that it isn't the usual kind of smartyboots use and abuse of deliberate artifice. Mustang Summer, which is largely made up of photographs, assumes we already know that art (and particularly photography) tells truth slant, as the poet said, and proceeds with earnestness to look at the game that is the artist's work.

That's a fine distinction, I know. But it's made pretty clear in Jeffrey DeGolier's A very nice place, a series of nine photographs of what appears to be a cluttered workbench, cryptically and theatrically lit. Each photograph shows a little landscape made up of tools and dust and other unidentifiable objects; in his artist's statement (which I usually ignore), DeGolier writes elegantly about the "tangled, intricate messes" that humans leave behind wherever they go, and his interest in re-creating these messes rather than discovering them. DeGolier highlights the mediated quality of our chosen environments, to very successful effect. (I should have been keeping a closer eye on DeGolier, who moved to Chicago about a week ago... drat.)

The Olympia collective Thin Ice tells us similar things about the artist's work, although rather more playfully. A set of photographs called Instructional and Settlement shows, in one, a pair of people studiously involved with a diagram of greenhouse-like huts, a bicycle on its side, and a list of abstract words. The second image is a photograph of the huts, plus the bicycle, plus a man crawling toward the bicycle on his knees. Alone, this second image would belong to the world of the chopped narrative, the unimaginable situation left to the viewer to complete, but in this case, the first image both spoofs and instructs.

There's plenty of spoof here, but it doesn't feel like brickbat irony. In fact, it almost always feels gently instructional. John Seal's big, dopey poster, with the inspirational message, "Those speacial [sic] moments are treasures to last a lifetime" screened over an image of a pair of feet with pink underwear around the ankles, riffs on those kitten-and-rainbow posters found in the rooms of dreamy pre-teens, but delivers a pointedly mixed message (as does the work's title, We should break up). Jack Daws' trophy sculpture, one of only two in the show, seems to have been awarded to the Renaissance painter Caravaggio. It's not much to chew on; more to the point is his trashy still life set against leopard-print fabric: basketball, KFC, Kools.

The best works here warp the world all out of proportion. Kelly Kempe's huge triptych of some kind of heart (cow?) positioned against grass and twigs actually seems to beat (small-large-small) when you look at it long enough. Perla Sitcov's (she also curated the show) enlarged tabletop landscapes of created and found objects--stalky fauna, a creature wrapped in string--recall Susan Robb's biological tableaux, but are more manipulated and deliberate, where Robb's feel real and discovered. Here, "contrived" loses its negative associations, and becomes a high form of praise: the artist in control of her world, and at the same time open to its accidents.

by Emily Hall