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Friday, April 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Shows highlight three Seattle painters' brushes with abstraction

Special to The Seattle Times

Three artists


"Kathryn Altus," 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays, through April 28, Lisa Harris Gallery, 1922 Pike Place, Seattle; 206-443-3315.

"Michelle Kelly," 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, through April 27, Esther Claypool Gallery, 617 Western Ave., Seattle; 206-264-1586.

"Julia Ricketts," 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, through April 26, Solomon Fine Art, 1215 First Ave., Seattle; 206-297-1400.

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Kathryn Altus at Lisa Harris Gallery, Michelle Kelly at Esther Claypool Gallery and Julia Ricketts at Solomon Fine Art share an ambiguous relationship to abstract painting. All three combine identifiable natural imagery with abstract form and pattern.

Altus, 53, strays closest to traditional landscape. For her fourth solo show at Lisa Harris since 1993, the ex-Cornish College alum displays three different series with mixed results. The straightforward landscapes like "Floats on a Rope" and "Chelan Shore" have great depth of field with tightly cropped edges that hem in nature. In these, and "Klickitat Day," Altus has made her best paintings yet. Delicately brushed and sensitively colored, they capture a misty light as well as a faint human presence. Cork floats on a rope are also a barrier to nature in a swimming area.

Less compelling are Altus' attempts at abstraction. At 5 feet by 4 feet, "Call Kalaloch I" is a tidied-up version of New York School master Mark Rothko with none of his smoldering power. The horizon line one-third up from the bottom pushes the picture away from abstraction back to landscape, where Altus is obviously more at home. "Fly-By 2" at least toys with the canvas support, breaking it into three separately stretched sections, across which an airplane jet stream is painted.

Kelly, 40, has exhibited extensively in New York and Philadelphia although the University of Washington graduate moved back to Seattle in 1996. The current body of work, six medium-size paintings and 33 small (8 inches square) paintings, focuses on the raindrop image.

Because she felt too many people sensed microscopic biological references in her last show, with the new "Drop" series she zeros in on a single shape. Within such a tight range, she has come up with a stunning array of differing treatments of nature. Although I miss the eerie, creepy quality of her earlier work, Kelly gains with closer attention to color and composition, making dozens of raindrop patterns completely different from one another.

Larger at 30 inches square, "Black Rain," "Carnival," "Big Pink" and "Light and Air" are the perfect spring tonic, colorful and clever, if lacking the ominous ramifications of her last show.

All the paintings were completed with the help of a highly competitive $20,000 grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation of New York. It was definitely money well spent.

The impinging of man-made structures upon natural settings is the subject of Ricketts' paintings that, like Kelly's, are oil on panel. Like Altus, Ricketts stretches the limits of recognizable imagery into not completely convincing abstractions. The five gray paintings in the window, however, seem to carry their own weight without recourse to horizon lines or skies.

"Beachfront Lots" and "Subdivide" are the most experimental. Aerial views of real-estate lots, they are brilliantly colored patchwork-quilt patterns, with the former even going so far as to have pink pennants affixed at an angle to its canvas surface.

Also like Altus, Ricketts, 31, is having trouble balancing representation and abstraction. In her case, though, she goes even further than Altus toward recognizable imagery within each painting, usually a street scene fragment at the top or bottom. Where Altus' brushwork is smooth and immaculate, Ricketts has many awkward passages that are sure to improve with time. Perhaps because of her printmaking background from Alfred University in upstate New York, she needs to play down the print's stress on line and master the intricacies of oil paint.

Highly promising, Ricketts, along with Altus and Kelly, is one of three Seattle painters worth examining closely this month.

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