A review of "From a History of Ruin," an exhibition by Seattle artist Mary Ann Peters at James Harris Gallery through Oct. 27, 2012.

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Mary Ann Peters is one of Seattle’s best-respected artists. Her new exhibit at the James Harris Gallery shows exactly why: It is a knockout.

All significant painters work somewhere on the continuum between the appearance and meanings of things in the world, and the appearance and meanings of things in paint. The best of them succeed in presenting all of those things at the same time. This is Mary Ann Peters’ specialty.

This latest show derives from Peters’ visit to Lebanon and Syria two years ago. As well as being home to some of the oldest civilizations on Earth, this corner of the world is where Peters’ own family came from: She is a second generation Lebanese-American. It has also been at the center of the recent upheavals of the so-called Arab Spring and its aftermath. Clearly it furnishes her with multiple layers of interconnected subject matter.

For while we can look at a little painting like “my father’s father” and wonder at its simultaneous pictorial relationships with a futurist vision of the newly industrialized 20th century, a Leonardo study of water eddies, a Chinese landscape watercolor, and an early Renaissance battle scene, its title makes it obvious that there is even more to it than this.

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It is based on a photograph of a Damascus street rally seen somewhat from above. Hints of this are present in the ribbonlike banner shapes that snake across the picture’s surface. But notice how some of these have been carefully drawn and painted to give the illusion of movement in space, whereas others are single calligraphic brush strokes.

For no matter how complex Peters’ range of visual, intellectual and emotional sources is, the proof of her pictures is in the painterly alchemy that takes place once those sources are put at the service of picture-making.

She talks about “following the energy of the painting,” which is clearly akin to a passage of discovery for her. Whereas the banners, and the poles that support them (which have turned green in the process of painting them) are vestiges of the source photograph, the specific number and position of them is discovered in the making of the picture.

So, too, is the sense of a clash of energies at the center of the image. Whereas there was no such conflict in the source picture, it emerged in the painting, Peters realized, as a purely pictorial reflection of the clashing factions that characterize Middle Eastern politics.

This is where the painting’s title comes from: the existence of enmities passed down from generation to generation. “If my grandfather and your grandfather were enemies,” is how she puts it, “then you and I will be enemies now.”

Peters’ hope for this exhibition of remarkable pictures is that it “sparks some conversations.” Given the powerful importance of her subject matter, and the bravura with which she treats it, there should be conversation aplenty.

Robert Ayers: robertayers@mac.com

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