Baja California dreamin' and points north

"The only works of art produced in America are its plumbing fixtures and its bridges" - or so reads a quote from Marcel Duchamp on a large, colorful signpost in the lobby of the Seattle Art Museum. Don't believe it! Like so much else in the "Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art" exhibition, these words are meant to get you thinking.

This is a show that invites, even demands, audience involvement; a show that speaks to and dismantles notions about the West Coast; a show that is as much fun as it is thought-provoking. Featuring works by 33 established and emerging artists from Mexico, the United States and Canada, it makes a compelling case that North America's West Coast is one of its most vital centers for contemporary art.

The exhibit was assembled by five curators representing the Museum of Contemporary Art-San Diego, Van-couver Art Gallery, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco and Seattle Art Museum. They want us to put aside traditional ideas of regionalism and think of works that are tied together by cultural threads, works whose artists respond to the texture of their lives.

Across international borders, West Coast artists are exploring the relationship of city, suburb and natural landscapes, commenting on our passion for electronics, our flirtation with por-nography. They question our idealism, celebrate our ethnic diversity. The exhibition makes profound statements about our time and place, and in many cases does so in a playful manner.

Lisa Corrin, Seattle's curator, has organized the exhibit to help us participate in the exuberance of contemporary art as we explore the stimulat-ing ideas expressed by so many of its artists. An Internet installation at the top of the grand staircase challenges the visitor to be part of it. Take a photograph of the sun, submit it, and it will be displayed for the pleasure of the usually sun-starved Seattleites.

Within the exhibit gallery itself are objects, videos, paintings, photographs and installations. Plan to spend some time here. You must if you want to get the full experience provided by the videos. There are many of them, and they are good.

Two fascinated me. Michele O'Marah of Los Angeles presents "White Diamonds and Agent Orange." On one monitor, actors restage a 1970s interview of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on "60 Minutes." Next to it, a monitor shows Hollywood enactments of the Vietnam War. It's a disconcerting statement about our taste for celebrity and violence and the way the media cater to or create it.

Kota Ezawa, a San Francisco-based artist, mesmerized me with his animated film "The Simpson Verdict." Characters evocative of those on TV's "South Park" enact key elements in the O.J. Simpson trial. This critical moment in contemporary American social history is reduced to a cartoon in which every gesture tells a story and the line between truth and fiction in contemporary society seems fuzzy at best.

Roman de Salvo from San Diego invites you to step back into West Coast history. Sit down in his rocking chair. Establish a rhythm as you rock and see if you can make the rigid rope lasso over your head swing round and round. Of course, you'll notice that the lasso isn't the only thing attached to the chair. Trailing behind it is a large anchor that ties us to the Western mythology we can't relinquish.

Brian Jungen of Vancouver gives a taste of what can happen when Northwest Coast Native American culture meets Nike culture. He creates remark-able depictions of Northwest Coast masks and carvings out of athletic shoes and their parts, reminding us that religious paraphernalia comes in many forms, and so does consumerism.

There are so many good photographs. Yvonne Venegas of Tijuana captures upwardly mobile middle-class women who have bought their status by appropriating the culture of their northern neighbors. Seattle's Glenn Rudolph shows the often-disconcerting juxtaposition of the natural world and the postindustrial society. Californian Larry Sultan discomforts us with his compelling mixture of suburban mundaneness and sexual titillation.

The paintings, too, look at the environment and the people of the Pacific Coast, reminding us of what we used to have, what we want to have, what we've got.

If you love contemporary art, this show will inflame your passion. If you've never been able to understand contemporary art, this show will show you the way. And in either case, you'll have a good time.

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