After a painful divorce, artist Tori Karpenko took solace near the fire-lookout towers of the North Cascades. Now he’s brought his disorienting landscape paintings — and a full-scale reconstruction of a tower hut — to Traver Gallery.

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Old-fashioned diorama and perspective-altering landscape paintings combine in unexpected ways in Tori Karpenko’s “The Lookout” at Traver Gallery.

The result is a show that, at one end of the gallery, resembles a natural-history museum installation — while, at the other end, assumes a more standard gallery-exhibit format.

Although the transition between the two elements feels more organic than abrupt, the contrast between them is striking. One creates a real sense of being on a North Cascades peak and looking down on a veritable ocean of mountaintops cresting around you. The other shows a painterly mind exploring an intriguing borderline between close observation and artful stylization.

Exhibition review

Tori Karpenko: ‘The Lookout’

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, through Dec. 23, Traver Gallery, 110 Union St., Suite 200, Seattle (206-587-6501 or

“The Lookout” is anchored by a full-scale replica, built by Karpenko, of a hut at the top of a North Cascades fire-lookout tower. It takes up a third of the gallery space, with a huge acrylic-on-canvas painting, “Rise Above the Crater Shan,” spreading behind it. “Crater Shan” and “The Lookout Structure” (as the hut is titled) set the visual context for the show. But there’s a personal context in play here, too.

On his website, the Twisp-based artist explains: “In the wake of my divorce followed by my young son moving four hours away, I sought solace from the ensuing emotional crisis in the North Cascade mountains. The vast silence of raw wilderness gave me a place to bring calm to a troubled mind. Empowering solitude led me to the stories of three poets; Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen and Jack Kerouac, who spent summers in the 1950s as fire lookouts experiencing their own profound personal transformations.”

The presence of the lookout hut at Traver is striking. But Karpenko’s talents shine brightest in the 15 smaller acrylics-on-panel that complete the show. Drawing from a variety of North Cascades landscapes, they lean toward naturalism — but don’t lean that way completely. The best of them are artfully disorienting, seeming at times to steal away the solid ground from beneath your feet.

The aptly titled “Veils” is a good example. In it, snow, water, cloud, meadow, ice and rock-scree coexist in an intricate dynamism. It’s hard to say what your vantage point is, or to gauge your distance from the landscape you’re observing.

Other paintings are more straightforward, yet emphasize a sense of being suspended between aquatic and terrestrial worlds. In “After the Storm” and “Inside the Liminal,” waters go from transparent depths showing rocky lake bottoms to dizzying sky-reflections that hide what’s under the surface. Lake, land and sky are inextricably linked, yet utterly different in essence.

Some paintings incorporate a more pronounced artifice. Black squiggles are drawn over vaporous cloud formations in “Cathedral.” Tidily spherical mist-forms float across a mountain ridge in “Rising.” There’s something pleasurably stage-setlike, too, about “Million Acre Silence,” with its small pond and its grass hummock of an island accessible by steppingstone — even if the painting is arguably an exercise in pure verisimilitude.

A couple of pieces — “Solace,” “House of the Holy” — have something shrinelike about them, as their titles suggest, with rocks that resemble altars anchoring the foreground while rugged terrain looms above them.

Venturesome in both its compositional techniques and its presentation, “The Lookout” reminds you how the shapes and shades of nature can seem both elusively random and comfortingly designed. It also suggests that Karpenko, although he has lived in the area only since 2000, has become a quintessential Pacific Northwest artist.