Seattle artist Kate Vrijmoet strikes an energizing balance between the figurative and the abstract in her new show, "Essential Gestures."

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The figurative and the abstract collide and collude with startling vigor in Kate Vrijmoet’s “Essential Gestures.” This exhibit of paintings and drawings is Vrijmoet’s first solo show in Seattle — but it surely won’t be her last.

Vrijmoet was born in Philadelphia in 1966, and earned her Master of Fine Arts at Syracuse University in 1997. She also studied with Evelina Brozgul at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and with Richard Ryan at Boston University. Married with two children, she and her family moved to Seattle from New York in 2009 when her husband got a job here.

Artwork that’s this accomplished, energetic, strange and alive is a rarity. Her images jolt you with the force of a Sylvia Plath poem or a Stravinskian percussion blast.

“Gestures” draws on three veins in Vrijmoet’s work (you can explore all three in more detail on her Web site,

“Non-Ordinary Reality” is her swimming-pool series: swimming pools, that is, as viewed from below the surface. The two on show here are complex studies of disorienting perspective.

In “Creation (of Melancholy Fate) by Supreme Being,” a swimmer’s feet are clearly visible. But everything else to do with this body in motion is inchoate, distorted, just coming into being. A second figure is semi-discernible amid the water shimmer and rippled flesh. And the imagery continues onto the sides of this huge canvas, as though its turbulence can’t be contained within its frame (the same “overspill” occurs in all the show’s paintings).

“Forgetting and Remembering in the Same Instant” seems, at first, a less- agitated work. But closer examination proves it equally unsettling. A hand and an oddly detached head of hair — a wig? — fill its foreground. The partially visible figure seems becalmed in the water, but with a violence implicit in its stillness. Both “Non-Ordinary” paintings can be read as renderings of either a frolic or a struggle. Indeed, look at “Forgetting” long enough and you may start thinking you’re observing a crime scene.

Vrijmoet’s “Exploding Moments” series is more overtly violent, but with some gallows humor entering the picture. All six “Moments” feature the same blue-collar figure, baseball cap aslant, cigarette drooping from his mouth. The deadpan titles — “Axe Accident,” “Chainsaw Accident,” etc. — indicate the grisly nature of these latex-house-paint-on-canvas works.

But there’s an odd disconnect between the traumas visited on this blue-collar Joe and his failure to react to them. In her accompanying essay, Vrijmoet speaks of how time is “radically altered during an emergent or life-threatening moment,” and says she sees each installment in the series as oscillating “between the occurrence of the accident and its aftermath.”

She also mentions the “inexplicable glee” she and her model experienced during their painting sessions — but maybe it’s not that hard to grasp, given the vitality of the images at hand. This is drip-crazy action painting, cruising excitingly along margins where form gives way to splattery anarchy.

Vrijmoet’s drawings reveal where the loose, jazzy assurance of her painting comes from. Each has a swift, intuitive rightness in its capturing of its human subjects, even when those figures shade into abstraction. The titles alone — “Mon beau fils de fil (my beautiful wire son),” “Flüsternhaut (whispering skin)” — suggest the quick-sketch dynamism of Vrijmoet’s charcoals, some on paper and some on newsprint, the latter lending a fragile, perishable air to these authoritative works.

Michael Upchurch: