At first glance, the gray and moody paintings of Norman Lundin, now hanging at Greg Kucera Gallery, might seem realist — but if you look closer, their wit and self-awareness pop off the canvas.

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It’s an event when one of the region’s leading realist painters is presented in a major show at one of the region’s principal galleries of contemporary art. They would seem, at first glance, an odd couple.

This is artist Norman Lundin’s first show at Greg Kucera Gallery — the unlikely pairing is partly explained by a growing diversity in what is considered contemporary art, a realm far broader than it was a few decades ago, when “modern” often meant abstract or conceptual, and realism was seen as old-fashioned.

“Kitchen with Green Chair” (2015), oil-on-canvas by Norman Lundin. (Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery)
“Kitchen with Green Chair” (2015), oil-on-canvas by Norman Lundin. (Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery)

An even more important factor is the nature of Lundin’s work itself, which is far less straightforward than it might appear. Rather than being simple descriptions of sunlit studios and domestic interiors, Lundin’s paintings are more like thought exercises, since the settings are wholly imaginary, and many of the compositions are created for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their actual furnishings.

Exhibition review

Norman Lundin: ‘Spaces: Inside and Outside’

10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays through April 2 at Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-0770 or gregkucera.com).

What makes Lundin’s work contemporary is his interest in themes like the nature of paint, the interaction of line and form, and the dynamics of pure composition — things that did not particularly interest earlier generations of representational artists for whom sheer description was often an end in itself.

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Take Lundin’s 2016 oil painting “Mondrian’s Studio with the Lights Off (Blue Pitcher),” one of the stars of the current show. With a title that humorously refers to a leading pioneer of pure abstraction, Lundin both quotes and teases his predecessor, creating a painting that can be viewed as a Mondrian-like grid as well as a rendering of a particular space.

That space is a spare, darkened workroom with polished wood floors, a long wood table and a wall divided by wide moldings, on which lean large, blank canvases. Pale, slightly tinted sunlight etches a series of grid-like window silhouettes on the wall and one of the canvases, where the resulting bright rectangle threatens to float away from its very dark surroundings, existing more as an independent element than as a part of the imaginary room.

Why the tension between two dimensions (the Mondrian-like grid) and three (the room itself)? Like other explorers of contemporary representation (the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi being an obvious example), Lundin revels in the complicated relationship between flatness and space, calling attention to the illusion at the heart of his realism — a magician explaining, but still pulling off, his trick.

“Flood  —  Desert City,” a 2016 oil painting by Norman Lundin. (Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery)
“Flood — Desert City,” a 2016 oil painting by Norman Lundin. (Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery)

Visitors who are unfamiliar with Lundin’s work might also be struck by the subdued mood and limited palette, one of his long-standing trademarks. Every side-lit, unpeopled room seems suspended in a sort of endless Sunday afternoon. Human presence is implied, but just offstage. Lundin’s sparing use of color is even more particular, piling on the grays to more dramatically present a few moments of chromatic intensity, striking a major chord to offset the dominant minor key.

“Loft, Broken Window, Morning” (2015), oil-on-canvas by Norman Lundin. (Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery)
“Loft, Broken Window, Morning” (2015), oil-on-canvas by Norman Lundin. (Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery)

In “Loft, Broken Window, Morning” (2015, oil on canvas), only a few touches of rust-red and blue relieve the almost-monochrome, but those few spots of colors glow out of proportion to their actual brightness and size.

By coincidence, Seattle audiences will also have the opportunity to see work by one of Lundin’s important but little-known predecessors — 19th-century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi — at the Frye Museum this summer. Hammershoi’s quiet, poetic interiors and restrained palette are a model for Lundin’s strategy of saying more with less, and using light (rather than color) to both describe and energize his quiet rooms.