All that glitters: Mitzi Pederson at Open Satellite

"Glittery," the announcement said.

We were invited to wear something glittery. I like to dress up and I'm okay being dressed fancier than those around me. In fact, in dressed-down Seattle, it's an amusing act of cultural defiance. In my mind, I'm in Paris.

So I put on my dress with the plunging draped neckline, fishnet stockings and 6-inch burgundy patent Nina Lepores and headed out to Mitzi Pederson's show at Open Satellite in Bellevue.

Mind you, I had advised my date the affair was "glittery," too. He looked suave in his suit and tie.

I could see through the windows that we were dramatically overdressed for the occasion, high ceilings, plate-glass windows and ultra-modern benches notwithstanding. But when I walked in, there they were and the coin dropped: glittery rocks.

Ah. I get it.

The main installation in the front of the room takes up most of the floor space. Dozens of rough, small-to medium size slabs of stone-like material stand in artful formations at right angles to one another, their broken edges shimmering in either silver or graphite.

My eye was fascinated by the simultaneous illusion of a rich material and my brain's understanding that it was humble, mass-produced stuff that had been lovingly glammed up. There was something sweet about this act of decoration.

My date had a different response. He said that initially he thought the stones were rich and precious and that when this perception was corrected he felt deflated...let down, somehow. Perhaps even a tiny bit mislead.

Whereas my reaction had been "Oh! It's cinder block! "his reaction was "Oh. It's cinder block."

Let's be honest. When you walk into a gallery full of bits of cinder block and sticks hanging from the ceiling, there is an unavoidable moment of "Oh, please."

Yes, I'll say it - even as an artist who enjoys the implications of the tiniest objects, noticed, displaced from their natural surroundings, and placed in a new context. Gazing at bits of marble on wooden blocks, there's a flash of the emperor's new clothes that goes through my head, not even specifically in regard to the artist, but to the entire business of contemporary conceptual installations.

But the reason I go to shows like this is in search of the next moment, the one after the "oh please' - the one where, glass of wine in hand, gazing and wondering, you begin to notice your responses to the minimal elements provided, and something starts to happen. You have a thought. And then another. And then if you begin to voice those thoughts, all of a sudden you find yourself in the midst of a discussion about the "art" and suddenly it becomes art - the kind that does something.

As I stood mesmerized by the ragged, glittery edges, imagining the artist dipping them, covered in glue, into buckets of the stuff to create her "granite", my date wandered over to me and said out loud that he was dying to see what would happen if he toppled a row of blocks - could the entire installation be dominoed?

I mused in turn that while that was a compelling thought, wasn't it even more compelling that the precarious arrangement remained intact, even with all these people around?

And suddenly those carefully upright rocks seemed to me like life - the way we walk around on the near side of disaster, not realizing that the one-ton weight drops just behind us, staying in one piece for another hour, another day. It reminded me of some natural formation somewhere, like the Balancing Rock that remains in place year after year, resisting gravity and other forces.

As he contemplated his itch to topple the blocks, my date mused that the installation was like life in another way - it invited thoughts that weren't a problem in themselves, but that would be if acted on.

I sometimes think shows suffer at their openings. In this case, the precariousness of the work became a minor miracle in the presence of all those feet and elbows, the presence of the crowd a part of the drama.

I rather liked the row of sticks suspended from the ceiling by thin string, too low to clear the floor so that they perched at regular angles to it in a line - all except, if I remember right, for one that stood upright, and another that balanced on a tiny, glittery rock.

It was banal and yet curious at the same time, the spareness for me giving way to a gentle fascination with the odd ones out and how easily the whole thing could be bumped by the throng. And if, I mused, like a cairn of rocks or a row of icicles or a spread of autumn leaves, the arrangement were bumped, broken or disturbed, these carefully balanced sticks would land in a new formation, dispassionately themselves, and take on a new phase of their existence.

I couldn't help wondering: if they were then lying on the floor, would they still be art? Perhaps, but not nearly as compellingly as when they are suspended and the possibility of their disruption hangs with them in the air.

My date and I did agree on one thing: that even the innocent mention of a word like "glittery" loads one's experience. In my case, obviously I was only too happy to take it literally as instructions on dress, but in another way it was a kind of spoiler. What if we had never seen that word? How might we have encountered those broken blocks differently? I know the recognition process would have been different, and thus the experience.

In the end, we also agreed that it would be a satisfying performance if someone - perhaps someone in six-inch heels - were to pick her way through the maze of blocks, all the while engrossed in her phone as she texted.


Mitzi Pederson, in the still night air at Open Satellite, February 19-March 19, 2011