How-To: The Art of Deborah Oropallo
Through Feb 2.
Some Assembly Required
Through Feb 23.
Museum of Glass, 1801 E Dock St, Tacoma, 1-866-4MUSEUM.

First, there is the issue of the disappearing hyphen; I would like to address it. The title for Deborah Oropallo's current show at the Museum of Glass is advertised How-To; in the catalog (and therefore the permanent record of it), it's styled How To. The difference in meaning is slight, but instructive: The first is a deterministic adjective (a how-to manual can't be anything but instructional); the second is gentler, conversational, almost a suggestion ("Let me show you how to do that, dear").

Here, the object of instruction is the viewer, and what is shown to the viewer again and again is how to see. Like much good art these days, Oropallo's work is not only an argument for itself, but an argument for art in general, and her paintings and few sculptures argue for the pleasure of being shown how we see, and in so being shown, seeing how else to see.

How else is suggestive, not prescriptive (so, no hyphen). Oropallo does this by pushing at different kinds of literalism, by calling simple things into question--what words mean, what shapes objects are, what we expect things to look like and be made of.

The most obvious example is a set of fire extinguishers made of glass, contrasting safety and fragility. You see this again in her most recent work, large-scale photographic prints of heavy objects (metal drums, gas canisters), on the surface of which the artist has screen-printed delicate patterns. As you accustom yourself to the push/pull of heavy objects being restrained by bandages and veils, you bring to bear all your reptilian skills of perception and perspective, and you're aware of doing so as you do it. That is the pleasure.

Oropallo's paintings--which take common items and repeat and pattern them into sublimity--read, at first, like a series of puns: Good Housekeeping, a cluster of big-petaled flowers that turn out to be an iron's scorch marks; Do Not Enter, a layered, impenetrable grid of welcome mats; Sell Out, rows and rows of tickets, growing ever more faint as they recede from the foreground. (One, called Material Handling, is like an inside joke for artists.) But their effect is more lasting, the feeling of a visual diagram of what happens when we see. The assumptions, the cultural contextualization, the understanding of what makes an expression an expression: the receding rows of tickets like an idea bastardized, sold out; the scorch-mark flowers that are both decorative and destructive (good housekeeping, indeed).

What Oropallo achieves so nicely is a sense of it all being on the surface, so that you never go too deeply into it--your sense of reality intrudes and becomes part of the process. This, in art-speak, is a midpoint between abstract and representational painting; the point is that they are paintings, and couldn't possibly be anything else. Only paintings can teach us to see this way.

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In the next gallery over, the art tutorial continues with Some Assembly Required, which uses modular work (that is, in more than one piece) by 11 glass artists to pursue the question of meaning through arrangement (and, not incidentally, the question of how to elevate glass art from its perceived nook in trinketry to the level of "real" art). That is, do you treat the work as holy, as with Dale Chihuly's kingly accumulation of fluted forms? Or as a sincere, eclectic tribute to the mixing of high and low, as with Richard Marquis' jumble of objects? Or as a kind of subtly obscene gesture, as with Dante Marioni's Plexiglas box full of beautiful blown goblets thrown any which way?

It is all very well to ask what it means to invest an arrangement with meaning, but I can't believe this show was put up without the work of Josiah McElheny, once a Seattle artist, who bestows lovely fictional histories on his artful vessels. This reinvestment of meaning, clearly made-up, both satisfies the sociological craving his rather simple vessels invoke, and at the same time draws attention to the craving itself. Some Assembly Required is rather more either/or (either you are respectful or irreverent) than McElheny; it could have used a dose of his ambivalence.