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Originally published Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Martyrdoms, border violence, a tree-eating android are all a part of 'What I See'

Seattle's Davidson Galleries artfully takes on religion, border violence and industrial excesses in its new group show, "What I See."

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION REVIEW

'What I See'

Works by Alice Leora Briggs, Stephanie Frostad, Martin Langford and Lisa Sweet, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through July 31, Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle (206-624-7684 or davidsongalleries.com).

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The four artists in the new group show at Davidson Galleries all do figurative work. But that doesn't mean they're offering bland, conservative fare.

Instead, the visions in "What I See" are as unsettling and ambiguous as they are potent. The subjects addressed range from religion to politics to environmental concerns. The artistry, whether it's in oil paintings, etchings or drawings, is uniformly impressive.

Lisa Sweet, a painter based in Olympia, makes an especially powerful mark with only a half-dozen pieces. Her work, she explains, addresses "Christian culture with a focus on affective piety, penitential ritual and scriptural accounts." In exploring this territory, she draws on a medieval-art influence, giving it a 21st-century inflection.

The results couldn't be more compelling or mysterious.

In "Weed," a female figure has her hands folded not in prayer, but in this-is-the-church-this-is-the-steeple fashion. Her eyes are sleepily lidded and distracted, as if she's not looking at this world at all. The words "burn this" are crudely marked on her forehead, while the "weed" of the painting's title must be the crown-of-thorns pattern on her dress. The blend of inward tension and passivity she displays amounts to a kind of downbeat transcendence. Result: a bracingly odd commentary on and/or questioning of faith.

The similar female figure in "Choke" is more enigmatic still. Down a corridor papered with memos and an empty picture frame, she strolls with two lifeless birds suspended around her neck. You might think she was speaking or singing, if it weren't for the title. The paint is handled with a smooth clarity that heightens the surreality of the scene.

The two copper engravings, "Lazarus" and "Hortus Conclusis," are poker-faced presentations of the accouterments of faith. In "Lazarus," Sweet's recurring female figure appears to be offering a dead bird to the risen corpse. In "Hortus Conclusis" (Latin for "cloister garden"), the same woman seems entirely focused on inward thoughts as wandering vines enwrap her.

The lethally sharp garden shears she's holding, however, do look as if they could bring this gardening business to a conclusive halt. In each of these pieces, multiple and often contradictory elements are at play. You almost feel the images might detonate in front of you.

Alice Leora Briggs zeros in on telling tensions, too, as she addresses contemporary issues while, as she puts it, "cluster[ing] images created by artists in previous centuries."

Her powerful sgraffito drawings on panel are sometimes split into diptychs as she portrays violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. Even when the images aren't divided, there's often a discognitive gap between one part of a drawing and another.

In "Spit," an outdoor-cafe crowd ignores a nearby torture scene (based on Dieric Bouts' "Martyrdom of St. Erasmus"). Or are they quietly in on it?

"Spit" is an illustration from "Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez" by journalist Charles Bowden, who's made the U.S.-Mexico border his beat. Briggs cites a passage from the book that inspired the drawing, in which Bowden describes a local chain restaurant as "a nice place to resolve the humdrum details of kidnapping, torture, murder and burial."

The work of Montana artist Stephanie Frostad seems a world away from such menace. Yet there's something about her precisely painted figures that is equally disorienting. In "Sudden Gulch" and "Confirmation" (both oil on canvas), a blond woman — who turns up in other paintings, too — seems to be giving guidance to a small band of people who are lost in a pastoral wilderness.

Frostad has said she sees travel as "as an allegory for life's journey," and her hesitating figures reflect the puzzlement that journey can induce. There's an illustrative quality to Frostad's work that deliberately flirts with naive art. But the scenes she depicts are too full of oddly weighted gestures and off-kilter emphases to be dismissed as pandering narrative art.

In a similar way, British artist Martin Langford is almost but not quite a cartoonist. The influences he cites — Escher, Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, to name a few — are obvious. But he uses them as a springboard to invent cautionary worlds of his own.

In his mezzotint "A Walk in the Country," a pastoral knoll is surrounded and almost swamped by a spaghetti of traffic-jammed freeway ramps. In an aquatint etching titled "Consumer," an android made of antiquated industrial parts stokes the yellow flames of its belly with a green tree.

The message may be a little obvious, but the execution is pleasurably dynamic and exact.

If your taste runs to visual art that grapples with actual subject matter rather than abstract concerns with color or form, "What I See" has plenty to offer. There's some challenging work here, beautifully done.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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