Seattle

Claire Cowie

James Harris Gallery

Though Claire Cowie trained as a printmaker, she’s best known for the figurine-style sculptures she assembles out of doll parts and animal knickknacks and then casts in resin. As much homely mutant hybrid as sweet keepsake, the figures, which are painted in runny watercolors, often seem to be struggling against their support, be it a dainty cupcakelike base or a wide, clear blue platform. The instability of horizons and frames is Cowie’s true subject and one within which her fine sense of sweet and cruel, and how they often resemble one another, is given full play.

For her second one-person outing at this gallery, Cowie returned to two-dimensional work, presenting a series of collages recycled from old prints and watercolors. Her subject is the area around her Seattle studio, a neighborhood dominated by scenes of industry—cement factories, commercial fishing boats, the cranes that lift containers off cargo ships—but also shared by a twenty-acre bird sanctuary. The strange tension between these different worlds is perfectly channeled into Cowie’s clean and deceptively light constructions.

In her best works, factories and cranes appear to belch out whole landscapes of water and mountains and sky, suggesting a kind of wry romanticism in which industry might give birth to a landscape (although not the one you expect) instead of destroying it—a counterintuitive irony that sidesteps the usual polemic. Cowie’s visual language is efficient and dreamy and spare, simplifying, say, factory stacks or a growth of reeds into boxy shapes and single gestures that do an enormous amount of labor. In The Lone Boat, 2004, a sweep of cut paper creates a shoreline against a white background, with boats created out of a few snipped-out brushstrokes bobbing in water you are left to imagine near houses that seem to rest on stilts. In another work, a pale, curving road cuts through a hillside made of a recycled patterned woodcut—the simplest of landscapes, created out of only a few lines, somehow both elegant and lonely. In its deliberate remove, her work recalls southern Sung-era paintings of the natural world; in the unexpected appearance of images within the source prints (chicken feet in a factory wall; a regal lady’s head on the side of a crane), there’s a kind of Monty Python–style pastiche that keeps the work from being too lyrical.

Occasionally these works do tilt too far toward the precious, as with The Birds, 2004, and The Eagles, 2004, both all-bird collages: You don’t realize how neatly Cowie measures out nature and commerce, privileging neither, until the balance shifts. But for the most part this exhibition is full of interestingly equivocal relationships between landscape and material, as well as evidence of the artist trying to place herself in relationship to both. It’s like trying to find solid footing in a fairy tale: Here there are many horizons, or variable horizons, or no horizons at all; here is a bit of weather that could also be a bird, a mountain’s shoulder, or a road winding off into nothing.

Emily Hall