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Originally published Friday, March 29, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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Seattle Design Center becomes art-gallery magnet

Seattle Design Center responds to some rental vacancies by inviting art galleries into its mix, including Center on Contemporary Art (where “The New Neo-Naturalists,” is on display through April 12, 2013) and Seward Park Clay Studio.

Seattle Times arts writer

Exhibit review

‘The New Neo-Naturalists’

9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, open until 9 p.m. on Third Thursdays, through April 12, CoCA Georgetown, Seattle Design Center, 5701 Sixth Ave. S., Suite 258, Seattle; free (206-728-1980 or www.cocaseattle.org. Most other SDC galleries are open at similar weekday hours.

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Over the past few years Seattle Design Center (SDC) , on the western fringes of Georgetown, has quietly become a magnet for art galleries.

Center on Contemporary Art first opened its CoCA Georgetown branch there in 2011 and now has a 4,600-square-foot space where it holds monthly exhibits. Seward Park Clay Studio has an equally large showroom, with cutting-edge ceramic sculptures/installations taking pride of place.

Fetherston Gallery (formerly of Capitol Hill) and Krogstad Photography (where Gregg Krogstad shows his own work, along with a monthly rotation of other artists) moved into SDC within the last month. Columbia City Gallery also has a presence there, as do half a dozen other galleries — this, in a vast, hushed upscale mall that, until the 2008 financial downturn, was exclusively high-end furniture/furnishing outlets catering to professional interior decorators.

SDC’s mix of tenants changed in early 2010 when its principal tenant pulled out unexpectedly, leaving half the center’s second-floor space empty. At the time, SDC was about to host Northwest Designers Expo, its big annual shindig. Having half a floor dark was not an attractive option.

SDC marketing manager Craig Cross had already been in talks with Artist Trust about creating a possible exhibit at SDC. “So in a bit of a scramble,” he recalled in an interview at SDC earlier this month, “we accelerated the dialogue.”

The result was “RISE,” a group show featuring work by graduates of Artist Trust’s EDGE Professional Development Program. After it was over, Cross still had a number of SDC showrooms vacant and began actively to pitch SDC as a potential exhibit space for other Seattle art organizations.

“After a while the pitching was no longer necessary,” he notes. “We got on the map.”

Some SDC galleries hew toward safe “corporate art”: brightly colorful abstract work or inoffensive landscapes. But some pieces at CoCA and Seward Park Clay Studio are of museum quality.

CoCA Georgetown’s latest show, “The New Neo-Naturalists” (up through April 12), features three artists: David Eisenhour, Lisa Gilley and Sean Yearian.

Gilley and Eisenhour are especially impressive. Gilley’s oil-on-board paintings, drawn from her travels in central Alaska, distill moody mountain grandeur and coastal landscapes to their essence. Her skies, peaks and water flow in a rippling, silken way; her light-and-shadow effects are spectacular. There’s a kinship here with Emily Carr, as landscape-observation and soul-meditation fuse into one.

Eisenhour’s bronze sculptures take their cue from maritime life, with emphasis on anything that lives in a shell. “Dungeness Mask” (as in the crab) and “Winter Mandala” are particularly striking.

Nearby, a long-term installation of “arboreal art” by an artist who goes by Peppé isn’t officially part of the show. But its transformations of huge driftwood pieces into polished sculpture complement “The New Neo-Naturalists” nicely.

Seward Park Clay Studio’s offerings, also on extended display, may confound your notions of what ceramic art can be.

A sound-and-ceramics installation by Justin Parker arranges haunting clay work (including “Death Mask,” a collage of faces half-melting into one another) in an unsettling aural atmosphere. Carol Gouthro’s brightly stylized botanical fantasies have a more fanciful dreamlike allure.

Tim Foss’ “confrontational ceramics” lampoon the notion of mass-produced pottery by assembling 101 jade-green vases ranging from 1 inch to 18 inches high, with results both dizzying and gorgeous.

There’s plenty else at SDC worth investigating, whether you’re looking with a fine-art collector’s eye or just trying to brighten a corner of your living room.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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