Painters Kate Sweeney and Kate Vrijmoet have curated a vigorous group show at the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) with bold claims about the continuing force of painting.

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Exhibition review

“Painters Who [Expletive] Know How to Paint” is not a shy title for an exhibition. (In fact, the actual title uses the f-word.) Painters Kate Sweeney and Kate Vrijmoet have curated a vigorous group show at the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) with bold claims about the continuing force of this age-old practice.

The majority of the 24 painters in the show are local, with a few out-of-towners carefully selected to create a larger field. All, according to the curatorial statement, make art that “gives us a punch in the gut, work that delivers the seduction of visual impact and presents perceptual, narrative, or process derived experiences.”

From Kathy Liao’s commanding self-portrait to Jazz Brown’s smart, intuitive abstractions to Margie Livingston’s captivating paint-as-sculpture, the show demonstrates the flexibility and capacity of painting today. It holds plenty of room for realistic renderings, non-objective tactics and manipulations of the conventions of the medium.

Sweeney says, “Painting sometimes seems like it’s old-fashioned but I think there’s another renaissance going on right now. It’s a great time to paint.”

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Indeed, the lament that “painting is dead” isn’t heard much these days. After periodic debates in the past about conceptual art, abstract painting and the commodification of artistic expression, it’s now pretty clear that painting has staying power.

In fact, it’s thriving in Seattle and across the country, a testament to the talent of local artists and the popularity of big-name painters like Kehinde Wiley and Takashi Murakami.

Still, there are lingering questions: How is this traditional medium relevant in today’s image-saturated, digital culture? How are skill and quality evaluated in a form that holds both meticulous realism and exuberant abstraction and in an art world that sometimes values concept over craft?

In other words, how can we tell when painters [expletive] know how to paint?

In her catalog essay, Vrijmoet answers this question with more questions, asking whether we look at style to determine who can really paint, or whether we look for connection and emotional engagement. “Perhaps the brush, however a painter wields it, is a tool of engagement,” she writes.

In the CoCA show, the intimate landscapes of Olympia-based artist Kathy Gore Fuss are quiet examples of this emotional pull. The sepia tones and myriad strokes of walnut ink on paper evoke feelings of mindful tranquility and melancholic nostalgia.

Compare this with the mood and subject of Seattle artist Laura Hamje’s painting “Seeing Red.” The view is from within a car, looking out the front windshield to a wet, gray street as we approach the exit of a tunnel. It’s a familiar, urban scene rendered strange and beautiful in its contrasts of light and dark, and the deft brushstrokes of white, gray, black and red.

These examples notwithstanding, the exhibition doesn’t define painterly knowledge as the ability to represent reality in a believable way. In fact, it leans toward stylized or gesturally expressive approaches.  You can see the brushstrokes, the buildup of paint, the countless marks made by individuals as they stood in front of a surface.

In his artist statement, Seattle artist Cable Griffith writes, “To me, the process of painting is an appropriate metaphor for life. A series of decisions, layered over time, correcting missteps through addition, towards a state of balance.” Griffith’s vibrantly colored “Halle Ravine, NY” simultaneously evokes a gloriously synthesized, computer-generated realm and the sensorial mystery of standing in a real, light-faceted forest. (Disclosure: I work with Griffith at Cornish College of the Arts.)

Brooklyn-based Ronald Hall also alludes to the intersection of lived experience, digital imagery and painting. At first glance, his vivid portraits seem like contemporary takes on post-Impressionism, with unrealistic colors abstracting African-American female faces. But his titles — “Selfie Portrait Series” — and artist statement uncover more complicated processes and realities. Hall often pulls images from history books, newspapers and the internet, manipulates the imagery on his computer, then renders in paint, all with the goal “to spark a dialogue pertaining to race relations.”

Hall’s work — like most of the paintings in the show — mixes up the three subthemes that guided the curators’ selections: perceptual concerns, narrative (emotional or social-political) concerns, or process concerns.

While all of the works reveal painting processes to some degree, there are several that are clearly born out of a deep exploration of material and method. Flora Ramirez-Bustamante, who emigrated from Spain to the U.S. in 2001 and now lives in Seattle, playfully dissects and reconstructs the idea of a canvas painting. Strips of painted fabric are interwoven and stapled together, creating an engaging, casual vibe underpinned by some serious formal skill and a connection to 1970s process art.

This balance of structure and play was also part of the curatorial process. Sweeney says that the hanging of the show was intuitive, which encourages visitors to look for visual and thematic relationships between works.

Right next to the gallery’s entrance, a pair of big, vertical paintings proclaim the history and timeliness of painting. An abstracted, standing nude hangs just inches from a fiery explosion on the surface of a garbage-filled ocean. Artist Ruthie V. plays with the tradition of painting the body by embracing sensual, fleshy tones while denying objectification with an ambiguous composition and slices of darkness. Natalie Niblack’s message about humankind’s dire impact on the environment is immediately, urgently apparent. Together, the paintings ask us to think about our own relationships to bodies and actions, including the act of observing.

And this, really, is what this exhibition is about. It does not position itself within or against critical trends (although those can be seen). Vrijmoet believes that painting is “a vital human activity.”

Contemporary painting renews its ties with the ancient practice of mark-making on the walls of caves. Painting unites the eye and hand of a particular maker with the eye and mind of an individual viewer. It asserts that we can take a blank surface and create something of ourselves but beyond ourselves, something for others to try to comprehend.

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“Painters Who [Expletive] Know How to Paint,” group exhibition with works by Susanna Bluhm, Jazz Brown, Brian Cypher, Carole d’Inverno, Marie Gagnon, Kathy Gore Fuss, Cable Griffith, Patricia Hagen, Ron Hall, Laura Hamje, Robert Hardgrave, David Hytone, Karen Kaapcke, Alex Kanevsky, Ken Kelly, Kathy Liao, Margie Livingston, Natalie Niblack, Allan Packer, Jennifer Pochinski, Flora Ramirez-Bustamante, Adrianne Smits, Ruthie V. and Paula Whelan; 11 a.m.- 6 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays, through July 14; Center on Contemporary Art, 114 Third Ave. S., Seattle; 206-728-1980, cocaseattle.org