New Kittredge exhibit demonstrates the potential of painting

Michael Knutson
“Symmetrical Four-layered Ovoids & Lattices III,” oil on canvas 2016 by Michael Knutson. Photo courtesy of Kittredge Gallery

By Dave R. Davison

Of all the media that artists can work in, painting is one of the easiest to get into. With some paint, a brush and a surface to work on, anyone can do it. Everyone possesses some aptitude for painting, but only a few care to focus their time and energy on the mastery and refinement of the medium.

The second show of University of Puget Sound’s Kittredge Gallery’s new season is all about painting. Actually, there are two shows going on: “Liberal,” in the main gallery space and “Phenomenal” in the small space. Each show features a cluster of works by five different painters.


“Liberal” features work by five painters who teach at colleges and universities in the NW5 consortium: Lewis and Clark, Reed, UPS, Whitman and Willamette. They are teaching artists who work in ways that align with liberal arts values like open examination of ideas, logical thinking, criticality and imagination. The painters in this group are Michael Knutson (Reed,) Richard Martinez (Whitman,) Elise Richman (UPS,) James Thompson (Willamette) and Cara Tomlinson (Lewis and Clark.)

Knutson’s paintings are a psychedelic blend of kaleidoscopic patterns and brilliant, sometimes florescent, color. His titles are dry-sounding descriptors of process like “four-layered rotational symmetry.” He combines draftsmanship and digital technology to create complex patterns that are then fleshed out with paint. His sources of inspiration are as diverse as Claude Monet’s water garden paintings and Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings.

Martinez’ collection of modestly scaled paintings combine muted tones with rectangular areas of light color or metallic pigment. Some have lines that run across the surface. The “content” of these paintings is the unnamable, non-verbal, subjective response evoked on the part of the careful viewer.

UPS’s Richman continues her experiments with drops of water: with their ripples, depressions and rises of a fluid surface. For the works in this show, she has added the element of color. She notes that color is relative; that it changes based on context. There is also a fascination with ripples as both a visual apparition and as a metaphor for the after effects of a given act or action.

Thompson’s work also deals with water. His series “Water is Sacred, Water is Life” is a grid of 12, mixed media compositions all bearing a strong family resemblance to one another. Close inspection of the compositions reveal that there is much use of tiny slips of paper from shredded U.S. currency. Thompson is adamant that water is not a commodity that can be reduced to monetary value. Water is the basis of all life as we know it. Our prime concern, before all else, should be to protect the cleanliness and sanctity of the water on this planet.

Tomlinson’s mid-sized, square canvases are wonderful. They are creamy gray, containing geometric and organic forms done in brighter color. There are shapes within shapes and there are zones packed with dense, narrow bands of color. Tomlinson is in dialogue with the long and varied traditions of modernist abstraction and entertains some of the formal concerns of that tradition: simplicity verses complexity, order verses entropy, inside verses outside. She explores themes like heredity, digestion, metabolism and sedimentation.


“Phenomenal” shows work by five perception-based painters who use paint as a way of responding to and transforming their observations. Each brings together sensory experience, physical action and reflective thought to create paintings that embody the experience of the artist. These artists may employ texture and color to explore the potential of painting as a means of capturing various phenomena, whether it be sensory or socio-psychological. The five artists featured in “Phenomenal” are Eric Elliott, Ann Gale, Emily Gherard, Ron Graff and Jan Reaves.

Elliott’s two gauzy paintings of plants serve as examples of his work. Elliott states that it is through painting and drawing that he is able to make a connection to the outer world. The production of art becomes a ritual of meditation on the space he inhabits and the objects that surround him. A given painting might be about a specific object, but it might also be about light atmosphere, abstraction or color.

Gale’s paintings in the show are mottled surfaces, busy with visual static: a large, figure study and a smaller portrait. The accumulation of marks is used to create a sensation of mass and gravity.

Gherard’s works are very understated, but there is a lot going on. She is fascinated with surfaces that have been exposed to forces or processes over time. A well-worked surface (or a well-worn one) has, says Gherard, an evident vulnerability that evokes an emotional response on the part of the viewer. Some of her brooding compositions are mounted so that they float in front of the wall. The backs are painted in florescent pink so that they cast a pink halo onto the wall behind them.

Graff painted subjects from observation (landscapes and still lifes) for 40 years. For the past 10 years, however, he has been an abstract painter, now able to focus attention on issues that were of concern when he was still a representational painter: compression, light, presence or lack thereof.

Reaves’ “Apple Stacker” is a charmer: ephemeral, watery-thin quickly executed gestures over the top of a heavy, brooding surface. This painting seems to combine a number of issues of abstract painting with the gestural nature of Asian calligraphy.

What makes these shows something with depth and heft is that it is work by 10 accomplished and serious painters, each providing enough paintings that the viewer gets a strong sense of what the work is about. This show is much more satisfying than a group show with one or two pieces by a multitude of artists.  “Liberal” and “Phenomenal” provide the delight of variety, yet there is also high quality and depth of focus.

Also of interest in this show are the well-crafted artist statements, which seem particularly cogent. They are strikingly good descriptions of the working methods and concerns of each of the artists. They are so philosophical and poetic that reading them is like having a course in the breadth and complexity that the simple medium of paint is capable of dealing with.

This show is done in conjunction with the NW5 Painting Colloquium on Nov. 3-4. The NW5 Painting Colloquium will feature a schedule of discussions by the artists presented in the show. The keynote address, in the Tahoma Room, 7:30 p.m., Nov. 3, will be delivered by Linda Besemer, James Irvine, Distinguished Professor, Art and Art History, Occidental College. There will also be a student exhibition with demos in Thomas Hall and a lecture by James Thompson called “The Beauty, Mystery, and Terror of Color.” For all you painters out there, the colloquium is free and open to the public. For a complete schedule visit

“Liberal” and “Phenomenal” run through Nov. 4. For further information, call (253) 879-3701 or visit

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