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Originally published Friday, November 4, 2011 at 5:35 AM

Art review

Gallery shows: Candy-colored botanica, forlornly ephemeral houses

Small exhibits by Seattle-area artists Claude Zervas (at James Harris Gallery) and Thuy-Van Vu (at G. Gibson Gallery) reveal curious turns of mind.

Seattle Times arts writer

EXHIBITION REVIEWS

Claude Zervas: 'Skagit'

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (by appointment Tuesdays-Wednesdays), James Harris Gallery, 312 Second Ave. S., Seattle; free (206-903-6220 or www.jamesharrisgallery.com).

Thuy-Van Vu: 'New Drawings and Paintings'

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, G. Gibson Gallery, 300 S. Washington St., Seattle; free (206-587-4033 or www.ggibsongallery.com). Thuy-Van Vu and photographer Joann Verburg give an artists' lecture 2 p.m. Saturday.

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Sometimes it takes only a handful of works to disclose an artist's curious turn of mind.

That's the case with two small exhibits now at James Harris Gallery and G. Gibson Gallery in Pioneer Square. Both feature local artists.

Claude Zervas' "Skagit" series, at James Harris, dates from 2004 but is making its first Seattle appearance. Gallery owner Harris wanted to give the suite of nine images a space of its own, and for good reason. Standing in Harris' rear gallery, you find yourself surrounded by candy-colored botanical aliens sprouting from a familiar pastoral landscape.

What, you might ask, is going on here?

Zervas — whose earlier work has, among other things, mixed LED technology with deliberately naïve sculpture — is also mixing media here. All nine "Skagit" pieces started as photographs Zervas took of the Skagit Valley in springtime. He then inserted a digital "pseudo-plant" shape into the foreground of each landscape, coloring it with clear acrylic gels. These photographed landscapes with digital-acrylic inserts are printed on nicely textured Aquarelle Arches watercolor paper to give them an archival feel.

Zervas, it turns out, is paying homage to/parodying "The Temple of Flora," a book of botanical prints assembled between 1799 and 1807 by natural historian Dr. Robert Thornton and four collaborators. The images weren't always as accurate as they were beautiful. In an essay on "The Temple of Flora," the University of Glasgow library website concedes, "Rather than being regarded as a document of scientific worth, the appeal of this monumental book today is largely emotional, its dramatic engravings and flamboyant prose redolent of a past age of romanticism."

Zervas brings a distinct sci-fi vibe to the fanciful specimens he invented for his "Skagit" series. The show is also accompanied by a new, squat, mechanistic sculpture that, according to the gallery website, "obliquely references fertility symbols." The "Skagit" pieces are, frankly, more fun.

Thuy-Van Vu is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. in 1975. That may explain the insecure or transient character of the houses featured in the six works comprising her show at G. Gibson, "New Drawings and Paintings."

Each item depicts a home, or the remains of a home, that has something wrong with it. "House (Emerson, AR)," an oil on canvas, is the most peculiar. Its seeming photorealism collapses upon any scrutiny. The house has no windows. Its clapboards appear to be a ridiculous 3 feet wide. You might think it was a doghouse, except the trees surrounding it suggest it's a full-sized one-story structure. Perhaps it's the project of deeply eccentric do-it-yourself builder?

The more you look at it, the more you suspect it's a comment on humans' flawed efforts to construct the shelter they desire, whether psychologically or in terms of carpenter skills.

"House A (New Orleans)" and "House B (Seattle)" — watercolors, with other media, on paper — are more straightforward but still potent in effect. The New Orleans house is a ruin, most likely a victim of Hurricane Katrina. The Seattle house, by contrast, is under construction; yet, open as it is to the elements, it seems as vulnerable and ephemeral as its New Orleans counterpart.

"Apartment E, stack 1 of 4, Building 2 (Jersey City)" (graphite on paper) isn't an apartment at all. Instead, it's an arrangement of pallets that might contain wood enough to construct a shack. But there's no way anyone's going to move into it, because there's no "in" to move into.

"Scrap Bin at Timberland Opportunities (Cosmopolis)," a watercolor-and-gouache on paper, goes one step further. It's the aftermath of a shack: a cascade of clapboards that may be where all our homes are heading.

In her artist's statement, Thuy-Van explains these works are based on photos of construction sites and abandoned buildings that she sees as "vestigial or inchoate structures of domesticity ... exist[ing] on the periphery of the ideal of Home."

She catches their forlorn allure in a striking manner.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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