520 EASTBOUND AT SUNRISE With construction cranes, 2014.
  • Courtesy of the artist and Prographica Gallery
  • 520 EASTBOUND AT SUNRISE With construction cranes, 2014.

Don't just go to Prographica Gallery and stand around looking at things, ask to talk to Norman Lundin, the owner of the gallery, and he will tell you things you do not know about painting and drawing. He will not tell you what inspired the artist, or why the artist is interested in a certain subject matter, or really anything about the content of a painting or drawing. He will tell you how it works.

Last weekend I asked him to talk to me about the Laura Hamje painting pictured above. What I'd noticed first about it was the section at the base of the construction crane at lower left. Paint is applied in so many different ways there. There's the smooth buttery rectangle. Thin red lines where paint has been carved away to reveal the red-gesso prep surface beneath the oil. Salmony chunks are caked on.

Those moves charge the tension between description and abstraction," Lundin describes. "The point where description and abstraction meet is an interesting line to move back and forth across." In other words, if your eye buys the overall illusion, but can also break it down into shapes, then Hamje has succeeded. It worked on me. This one section drew me all the way across the room to look closely. I skipped over other paintings to get there.

The problem of midspace is Hamje's other main challenge in choosing a wide open receding landscape. Foreground and far-ground are easy, compared to the middle zone where whatever you're depicting has to dissolve at precisely the right rate to make the depth convincing. In 14th-century Florence, artists blatantly cheated to avoid dealing with this problem. Lundin says their approach is known as "the Florentine leap," leaping straight from the Madonna sitting in the window to a distant landscape behind her. No middle ground at all. The Mona Lisa is like this, although made later. Another later example, which you can see now at Seattle Art Museum, is Cranach the Elder's 16th-century Judgment of Paris. (He created a distraction. Look! A hedgerow!) For a contrasting case, Turner threw himself at the middle ground and rocked its middle world.

"A gradual progression—that's hard," says Lundin.

To really see what Hamje did in the middle ground—the cars on 520, the fainter construction crane at left, and the streetlight on the right—you need to go to the gallery. The show is open today and tomorrow only. Anne Petty, another young Seattle painter, shares billing. She depicts people in awkward positions that seem charged, but what's charging them? You can make your guesses. Norman probably won't help you, or interfere with you, with that.

FIVE BY FOUR FEET Anne Pettys Lucas + Catie, 2009, oil on canvas.
  • Courtesy of the artist and Prographica Gallery
  • FIVE BY FOUR FEET Anne Petty's Lucas + Catie, 2009, oil on canvas.