LOWRY HILL — The big question ringing in the gallery where the Walker Art Center has assembled its first contemporary painting show in a dozen years is: Why paint?
Why paint now, when the digital revolution has opened up new modes of expression, when an artist with a brush might feel their knees buckle under the weight of painting’s history? Why abstract painting, in particular, when it’s already been through the wringer of postmodernism?
In a succinct show that includes the work of 15 artists all in their 30s and 40s, exhibition co-curators Eric Crosby and Bartholomew Ryan propose a few answers: because borders between mediums are increasingly porous, because the Internet has fundamentally changed artists’ engagement with art history, because painting is still powerful.
There’s a palpable sense of freedom in this work, and hometown boy Jay Heikes exemplifies it. The Minneapolis artist presents a wall of homemade “tools” that are not strictly a painting but occupy the same rectangular space on a gallery wall where you might expect to find one.
Some look like farm implements or war clubs. There is a samara-shaped paddle and what looks like a model of a spinal column. What kind of painting would they make?
Dianna Molzan hangs a canvas on a frame as if it’s a dress on a hanger, lets it sag and crumple and uses sparsely applied marks to emphasize its newfound curves. It’s a kind of painting that’s not content with just two dimensions, and Molzan is not alone in creating work that could be considered sculpture; Rosy Keyser affixes beat-up sheets of corrugated metal and melted plastic to a wooden frame for “Big Sugar Sea Wall,” suggesting the destructive power of nature.
Matt Connors creates the illusion of depth by layering semi-transparent washes of blue and red acrylic on canvas. With time, the layers open like a series of doors, and although the colors mingle they seem to retain their individual identities.
Alex Olson’s oil-on-linen paintings, by contrast, emphasize texture. For “Proposal 9,” Olson swirled a brush loaded with sliver and black paint, leaving concentric rings like the grooves on a vinyl record, then made a series of vertical scrape marks that appear to float above the background but are actually carved out of it.
Sarah Crowner’s “Ciseaux Rideaux” is a triptych of geometric abstractions made of individually cut and dyed bits of fabric sewn together. The title, French for “Scissors Curtains,” intentionally undercuts its status as art, but the piece is elegant, minimalist and formally playful.
“Painter Painter” is a challenging exhibition, and visitors should heed the advice Crosby and Ryan offered the crowd gathered for a preview: Assume it’s a painting, and go from there.
“Painter Painter” runs through Oct. 27 at Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. 375-7600. walkerart.org