This year’s Visual Art award is sponsored by Frye Art Museum.

When Sherry Markovitz started making paintings of dolls on fabric—paintings that sag, of dolls staring out into doll distance, of dolls that are just barely pretend—people asked whether she was okay. It's true that the paintings had their origins in the madness of grief. Her mother had given her a doll after her mother's sister died, but Markovitz didn't start making paintings of it until after her mother herself died—and even stranger, the doll's clothing included a head bandage. So it was understandable if you thought you heard ghostly crying sounds coming from those early, washy paintings on silk. The last few years of paintings, though, are on stronger cotton. It still drapes and stains, but it holds dense, saturated color. The paintings are still glowing, stained, freaky—every bit as stubbornly weird—but now they've exploded into every emotional register. Markovitz is both an artist who has been making art at a high level for a very long time and someone who has finally arrived.

For years, long before anybody was putting a bird and a pattern (or a patterned bird) on every damn thing, Markovitz made the most spectacular, ornately surfaced beaded sculptures of animals. Her sculptures are the other, literally tougher-skinned side of what she creates: sparkling hunting trophies, or human heads with turbulent surfaces, or abstract suggestive forms built from the shapes of gourds or desiccated unused Thanksgiving yams. Like her paintings, they are powerful in a way that's ancient.

Born in Chicago and introduced to art at Hebrew school at age 8, going on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago starting at 10, Markovitz has never tried to be grand, clever, or fashionable. She works alone in her studio. She sews tiny, shiny objects obsessively for hours, or runs brushes across fabrics, sometimes throwing paintings in the washing machine to see what happens. Everything she creates is a visual blaze that's somehow also elusive. "There's definitely a narrative in them," she says, adding, "but I don't know what it is."

It wouldn't be surprising if the magazine in her studio were Art in America—she's had enough success and she's not an outsider—but it's not. It's Antique Doll Collector. When she studied art at the University of Washington in the 1970s, surrounded by conceptualists, minimalists, and artists excited by the relatively new medium of video, she appreciated what they did, befriended them (some for life), and did her own thing. In one corner of her studio, she's set up a precarious pile of Mexican plaster dolls as models to paint from, their pink limbs splayed, hair frozen, faces painted or covered in luchador masks made out of glitter. The setup is a tower of bodies—a morbid thought, but she points out that somewhere in Spain, people pile themselves up as high as they can for fun. That's what her unsummarizable work is like. JEN GRAVES

Rodrigo Valenzuela grew up with missing information. His family lived in Chile with a television in every room of the house, and programming was dominated by dubbed Hollywood movies and shows—and sometimes placid landscapes preceding the speeches of the military dictator. The voice of Al Pacino one afternoon might recur later that night as the voice of Homer Simpson. The situation can be hilarious, Valenzuela says, and it also implants a natural distrust of imagery. What for many kids is a perfectly smooth illusion, Valenzuela experienced as Humpty Dumpty already down. He grew up to make photographs and videos that are finely crafted to be wrong.

Though he just graduated last year from the University of Washington with a master of fine arts in photomedia, Valenzuela has already been a working artist for a decade. Talk to him about anything for a while and you'll see that he's brilliant. He entered the United States illegally eight years ago to be with a girlfriend in Boston. In Chile, he had already been teaching art after having attended a classical art school that rigorously taught life drawing, painting, and the history of art. Here he worked construction. Eventually he got married, earned degrees at the Evergreen State College and UW, and restarted his art career with a vengeance—he's been in group exhibitions at just about every independent gallery in Seattle as well as in Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and Miami, and had two full solo shows in two years in addition to keeping up both paid and unpaid work with other artists. For instance, he makes trailers for art shows by artists he likes. Imagine "getting people excited about thinking," he says, as opposed to the latest Iron Man.

Beauty and labor, conventionally used to conceal each other, are out front together in Valenzuela's work, and he considers himself above all a "cultural worker." Diamond Box is a polished black-and-white video he set up like a documentary but chopped into a fiction. Its subjects are other day laborers who crossed into the United States illegally; Valenzuela paid them to tell their stories. Instead of playing back their audio synced with their visual footage, he cut their words into a single collage story (that vaguely mirrors his own), told in voice-over as they sit in front of the camera unspeaking, in moments captured before the interviews began. The narrated story is linear, but the various voices take the form of a magazine-cut-out ransom note, accompanied by present-day visual portraits. In rebirthing the world in new forms, Valenzuela keeps hold of the motion and commotion already here. He does something that in this day and age is almost impossible: He makes pretty true. JEN GRAVES

In recent years, disillusioned by any number of utopias gone wrong and various hypocrisies exposed, some very interesting artists have created work that upends the sentimental notion that art is a moral good—and that has been fun. Matthew Offenbacher is not one of them. He is an unstylishly gentle soul who somehow, in any given room, also manages to get across the one thing that really needs to be said. He's a painter, a reader, a writer, and an editor, and he's the closest thing contemporary art in Seattle has to a non-sceney, grassroots community organizer. He publishes La Norda Specialo, the artist's zine, where in 2009 he wrote the essay "Green Gothic," the most influential essay to hit Seattle art in an age (and the subject of a recent exhibition at Seattle University), drawing together the handsome and remedial decay of Gas Works Park with streaky, rain-on-windshield sketchings of Kurt Cobain YouTube stills (by Gretchen Bennett) and the forest-embedded monsters of Twilight. It was a dazzling synthesis, both ambitious and completely down-to-earth, capturing what one writer, Seattle musician Emily Pothast, called a defining characteristic of his paintings, too: They are "freakishly egoless."

Consider that even the most stripped-back art is almost always inherently showy and egotistical—it just goes with the territory of artmaking—and you begin to see why Offenbacher's creations can be so surprising and layered. They are often bright, often of cheerful subjects, and often painted on stain-resistant fabrics that fight being painted on, creating a balding, otherworldly texture (not to mention a productive and literal tension between the image and the surface). His visions are not unlike folk art, and they don't exactly fly off the walls into fancy collections. One recent exhibition was designed, only halfway-jokingly, to be installed inside a spaceship in order to improve the lives of astronauts. You find yourself not so much distantly admiring as leaning into and sympathizing with Offenbacher's works; they're vulnerable, funny, and holding out a hand. They carry an ethos that's essentially queer, one level of which is simply Straight boys don't make paintings of flowers in 2013. But Offenbacher's unfenced flowers somehow refresh a worn-out innocence about, say, the fact that flowers are a really great thing to make a painting of. His art reminds you about believing in things. JEN GRAVES

See these artists in conversation with Jen Graves at the Frye on August 7;

Photos by Kelly O