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Originally published Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 5:30 AM

Art review

Isaac Layman's 'Paradise' transcends ordinary

Seattle artist Isaac Layman's "photo constructions" at the Frye Art Museum invest ordinary objects with unusual powers while often placing them in an unrecognizable guise.

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION REVIEW

Isaac Layman: 'Paradise'

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays, through Jan. 22, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-432-8227 or www.fryemuseum.org).
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Here's one version of "paradise," the way Seattle artist Isaac Layman sees it:

He and his wife were resting in bed with a lively bundle between them, shortly after the home birth of one of their children.

"It was fantastic to see this person you've been expecting," he said in an interview in August. "And they look about right ... about what you thought."

A minute or so later, it occurred to them that they didn't yet know if their newborn was a boy or a girl: "We hadn't figured it out. So we had this real brief moment in time to know something and enjoy that thing without a label, without a category."

Still, once the question raised itself, there was nothing to do but check: "That was a magical moment of not knowing, which I would never trade for anything, probably. But you give me a chance to know and you tell me I'm going to be less happy, I would still go check. And I think that's the getting-cast-out-of-Eden moment. You start to label and define and be able to see differences. ... That's a wonderful gift, but that's kind of also the curse."

In "Paradise," his new show at the Frye Art Museum, Layman tries to lead his viewers into similar moments of experiencing without knowing, seeing without defining.

Unlike Layman's earlier works which were instantly recognizable for what they were (a fireplace, a kitchen sink, an oven's interior), these new "photo-constructions" — digital assemblages of up to 500 photographs fused into a single image — mostly read as abstract at first glance.

Even with repeated glances, some remain as impenetrable as they are inexplicably compelling. They present sights that you know are familiar. Yet without any context to help you situate what you're seeing, Layman's visions have the frustrating allure or magnetic pull of a tune you can't place or a name that escapes you. (Only one, "Land Grab," is titled — and even that doesn't help you pinpoint what you're looking at).

One image in particular blends maximum frustration with maximum "aha" payoff, once you're told what it is. It's of dark-gray rippled material: some sort of artificial fabric or mesh that's a little industrial-looking. You know that you know this. You've seen it. It's part of your life.

But it takes Layman's explanation to help you place it and savor it for what it is: a stair-tread he tripped on and kicked loose on his way up to his attic studio. Rather than nail it back into place, Layman decided to photograph it.

Two depictions of a discarded, dust-coated, fingerprint-smudged iMac screen have the same effect. They could be anything: a space telescope image of a distant crowded galaxy, or the Earth's own night sky seen from an unfamiliar vantage point. But when you learn what they are — two takes on a digital-age discard you might find in any home — the paired images become oddly humble and moving.

For viewers who prefer their experiences to go unlabeled, nothing in the pieces' titles or captions will spoil their enjoyment of "Paradise." But for those who, after a minute or two, just have to know what they're looking at, fully briefed docents will be on hand to explain how each piece was made.

Layman's imaginative world is contained entirely within the parameters of his house, and there's an almost animistic energy to his domestic observations. One image getting big play in the show (it's on all the Frye posters and brochures) resembles a painterly evocation of cloud-bestrewn heavens. In fact, it's a collection of used tissues that Layman gathered from wastebaskets around his house when everyone in his family was sick. He put them in a glass dish, added a little water — and voilà! He had a beautiful, germ-ridden, strangely symphonic ode to family togetherness.

The intense clarity of this "vision" is due to Layman digitally scanning the Kleenex layers at different depths of focus and then collating them in Photoshop so every veil of moist tissue has its own sharp yet ethereal outline.

Layman's large pieces are arrayed sparingly around the Frye's exhibition space, sometimes with striking effect. In the vestibule opposite the Frye cafe, two depictions of the same blue plastic ice-cube tray face each other, hinting at the numerous lighting and focus decisions Layman makes as he works on a piece. ("These aren't photographs of stuff," he said while leading a press tour through the gallery. "They're photographs of thinking.") One ice-cube tray image has chiaroscuro contours and depths. The other reads so flatly it's more like a two-dimensional decal than a three-dimensional object.

The most brilliant touch is in a long room containing a mere two pieces. At one end: an extreme close-up of a single empty receptacle in a red ice-cube tray. At the other: an image of a heating vent so sharply rendered that you feel you could fall through it. The red cube is the product of a single digital scan with a single-point perspective. The heating vent is the product of 40 sharply focused scans (one for each hole in the vent grid), plus one soft-focus scan of the interior of the vent, leading beyond the grid into what promises to be a gauzy and slightly mysterious heating-duct maze. The tension between the two works practically crackles.

In one installation in the exhibit, the artist drops out of the equation altogether. It contains not photo-constructions but actual dirty windows removed from Layman's living room. Here, Layman's concept — his focus on something we normally look through rather than at — has more appeal than the work per se.

The pieces in "Paradise" pose a challenge to Layman's viewers, even as they cut to the essence of what he's all about. Only a few of them, frankly, have the instant appeal of their predecessors: those sinks and ovens and cabinets. But if you linger with them, and chat with a docent about how they were made, they may just envelop and seduce you.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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