Friday, June 27, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Visual Arts

Even in the depths of darkness, a little lightness finds a way in

Have you noticed how many artists seem poised for disaster? Much of the work I've been seeing lately at the galleries radiates unease about...

Seattle Times art critic


Exhibition overview

Patte Loper: "A Peculiar Brightness in the Sky" and Marc Dombrosky: "I Love You to Death, Platform"

Through July 31, Platform Gallery, 114 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-323-2808 or

Jon Haddock: "Automata"

Through July 19, Howard House Contemporary Art, 604 Second Ave., Seattle (206-256-6399 or

Gene Gentry McMahon: "In the Garden"

Through Saturday, Grover/Thurston Gallery,

309 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle (206-223-0816 or

Have you noticed how many artists seem poised for disaster? Much of the work I've been seeing lately at the galleries radiates unease about the condition of life on planet Earth. The latest shows at Platform Gallery and Howard House are a case in point, with drawings and sculptures that convey a simmering apprehension about where we're headed, as humans and as citizens of the United States. To balance the angst, there's some quirky humor out there, too — I'll get back to that.

In Patte Loper's latest work at Platform, a drawing show called "A Peculiar Brightness in the Sky," she uses the trope of Antarctic exploration to convey a sense of barely restrained desolation. For one series, she drew improvised shelters that stand as tenuous barriers against a wilderness of ice. With an apocalyptic sky behind them, they seem about as safe as life rafts adrift on the open ocean.

The way humans cobble their little constructions onto an unsympathetic planet is Loper's terrain. In a gallery handout, she references 19th-century critic John Ruskin and his notion of the "pathetic fallacy," that is, our way of projecting emotional attributes onto the natural world, imbuing it with our own feelings. Loper embraces the concept. You can empathize with her little constructs as individuals, hanging on alone in a barren emotional landscape. Or, as I prefer, as broader metaphors for the increasing discomfort human beings feel with the rhythms of the natural world — and that includes our own natures.

That's what I love about her grand diptych drawing "Observation Deck for a Bottomless Pit." The structure is a chic viewing lounge complete with modern furniture, sculptures, mineral "specimens" and potted plants. It seems to somehow be set into a vertical cross section of a mountain peak that reminds me of Mount St. Helens. As far as I can tell, it exists as part of some crazy mind-set. All the comfort and style of that viewing platform are separated from a bottomless abyss by a little stanchion with lax ropes, like you'd find in front of a museum display. Yeah: I'd have to say that pretty much sums up my own feeling of anxiety about the state of our environmental, economic and political situation. Something like fiddling while Rome burns.

Loper's show follows another strong exhibition at Platform that crackled with environmental concern. A three-artist show, "Eden's on Fire," introduced the work of Brooklyn artist Michael Schall, who, interestingly, gravitated to a similar volcano and abyss symbology, but with his own witty and endearing style.

For a little added humor this time around, don't leave Platform without getting a guided tour of Marc Dombrosky's totally weird and hilarious little installation in the back-office area of the gallery. There is embroidery. And found stuff. Beyond that, I'll say no more.

A jolting context

A few blocks away at Howard House, Jon Haddock gets more literal with his imagery in "Automata," a group of meticulously crafted, hand-operated papier-mâché and wood sculptures. When cranked, they repeat acts of brutality that we've already had pounded into our psyches by a barrage of recent news stories. Tasering, humiliation, rape, torture unto death — you'll recognize the stories. Do we need to see them again?

Considering Haddock's presentation, I'd say yes. His choice of a lighthearted, toylike medium puts the horror of the images into a context that jolts. It's easy to get thick-skinned about the news, cooking dinner while watching reports of carnage and mayhem. Haddock's artworks carry an undeniable burden of collective shame with them. This is the face of our country. What the rest of the world knows about us and what our children grow up watching.


Fun in the vignettes

But there are other facets to our culture, of course. To lift your spirits, race down to Grover/Thurston Gallery and spend some time with the surreal vignettes that are Gene Gentry McMahon's paintings. (The show ends Saturday; don't put it off.)

McMahon's been out of the gallery scene for a decade, but hasn't changed her approach. She still paints dreamlike accumulations of people scattered about like stones on a beach, each absorbed in his/her own obscure rituals, as though nobody else existed. In the big triptych "Cry Me a River," everybody is hanging out up to their armpits in some body of water, many of them clutching plastic water bottles. Each is busily engaged and seemingly oblivious to all else, like people on cellphones. I kept finding myself giggling.

Each scene is different, but you may spot recurring motifs. What's with that odd little dog? Can a water fountain create anxiety? Here, you'll have fun.

Sheila Farr:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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