Storyboard (2): Part of a larger story that Mary Ann Peters neither wrote nor can see. Courtesy of James Harris Gallery

Artists are always playing the angles.

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Meanwhile, as viewers, we often make the mistake of talking about their subject matter when what we should be talking about is the way they face it: head-on, from the side, from within, through storms of dust... We're quick to assign artistic virtue or vice to the what; the truth of art is that the what is always the how.

Seattle artist Mary Ann Peters is known for making art tied to her family's native Syria, now Lebanon and the no-man's-land between them, a zone as metaphorically fruitful as it is visually bare. This is all sexy, juicy stuff to an America that's finally waking up to the variousness of the Arab world. But Peters's quest has not been to wonder about the identity of Syria, or even to examine herself as one Syrian American woman. Rather, she's been trying to resolve the dilemma of feeling impossibly connected to a subject that is far away, something remote, something with which she cannot have direct contact or gain accurate and current information. How do you make images about things you can't see?

Peters has spent 35 years trying to find the right angle of approach. At 66 years old, the lifelong painter has finally become more like a film director, overseeing multiple cameras, injecting herself at times and letting her actors make their own moves at others. Her new exhibition at James Harris Gallery is the most explosive, varied, and wise of her career, and she could still expand more. She has freed herself.

Peters keeps the letter her grandfather wrote to her father when the younger man was leaving Syria and setting out for the Eurocentric world of America and Yale. He wouldn't know anybody in this new world, so other Syrian Americans would have to stand in for family. The letter ended with a request.

"I know it's difficult," the older man asked, "but please find the Syrian boys."

Find your people.

Heeding the call in her own way down the generations, Peters looks for her Syrian boys and girls by making pictures of their lives and their lands. For years, since the late 1980s, her pictures have been dust-stormy abstract watercolor gouaches on clay-coated panel. They're as soft-skinned as drums, in a sepia palette that looks like organic staining. Some natural force other than an artist's hand appears to have passed across these paintings, and the action in them happens beneath the surface storm, in the background. Fragments appear like bones in an archaeological dig, but there is mostly sand and wind.

Looking at those paintings, you might have assumed that Peters knew what the action was all along, but wasn't telling. She explains now that she never knew. "Somehow, I never felt like I had the right to picture it directly," Peters said last week, standing in a gallery full of fresh, hard-won paintings, sculpture, tapestry, and installation, all created in a flurry during the first quarter of 2015, after a lifetime of preparation.

Peters is not known for her shyness—she will stand up at an art event and ask the confrontational question that stops the room—but it's no wonder she has been hesitant with her imagery. She'd traveled widely, but never to Syria, until 2012. She says that when she finally saw Syria up close, she grasped how far away those Syrian lives she's chasing in her work really are from her own, regardless of their incontrovertible link. The realization seems to have opened her to experimentation, and released her from the implied task of forced empathy, yielding pieces that are more confident but less knowing. "I do not disturb your center, nor you mine," as John Cage liked to say. He meant it as a gesture of respect.

Let's talk about the installation. You can understand the rest of the show by looking at the installation, and vice versa. It's called the world is a garden, and it has its own room in the gallery.

You enter at one end and at the other end see a folding screen stretched from wall to wall, a fence of diaphanous honeycomb material. Through the material you can make out a shadowy view of what's behind it: a stretch of flowers, most of them white as snow, some with bits of popping color.

From across the room, you see a several-foot stretch of the flowers. Move closer and the stretch shrinks to two feet. Get all the way up to it and the stretch is only a couple of inches.

Nothing is magnified. It's just that your view narrows. To look closely, you must look narrowly. To get the broadest view, you cannot be close. It's frustrating to want the comprehensive view so badly. Sure, it's a metaphor for Peters's experience of a lifetime spent trying to find the Syrian boys, zooming in only to be made aware of all she can't see, but it's also a broader metaphor, familiar to anyone with a computer or a smartphone or even a TV. We all know the tantalizing promise of a godlike vantage made by immediate access to encyclopedic data; we're always inching up to omniscience, only to watch it recede, over and over.

But the technology of this piece is just wood, resin-coated paper, and some plaster-dipped fake flowers. It's something that could be conjured on a summer night in a flickering carnival sideshow tent. It evokes spies and tricksters. And women: the private sphere, the domestic world that blooms behind fences and fabrics. (It also brings to mind another great installation made in Seattle, Jeffry Mitchell's Tomb of Club Z, commissioned in 2006 by Western Bridge private collectors Bill and Ruth True. Tomb is a screen made of cast-white paper with the appearance of frosting lined with decorative cocaine, fronting a glass vitrine containing hand-formed white clay figures slumped and having sad sex in a three-story white-ceramic replica, from memory, of Seattle's most notorious bathhouse.)

In a group of sculptures called impossible monuments, Peters demonstrates again how to make material disappear simply by approaching it. The sculptures are five brittle-looking little bronze pockets you could hold in your hands, and it takes a few seconds to realize they are pita breads cast in bronze. The food burned away in the casting process, leaving these bumps as specific memories of actual things. "Unique bronze," the label says, meaning no, you can't have another one, I can never make this exact thing again, however common and mundane it was to begin with. Now the pitas are both bread and bronze, delicate and unbreakable, edible and tooth-cracking, here and gone.

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And then, on the walls of the gallery, there are four of the least abstract scenes Peters has ever painted and shown. They're titled "Storyboard" paintings 1, 2, 3, and 4, in a direct nod to the collaborative cinematic process. They must be smaller parts of a broader narrative, but Peters doesn't pretend to have written it, or even to know it. One shows a refugee tent, another the mystical reflection of a woman in a pond, a third a soldier running in an alley, and the last a car explosion. (The scene one encounters last in the gallery is the one numbered "1," implying there is no set order.) Each is painted in a different style—there are no ruts in this show. They range from dense-with-impressionistic-color to dry-and-reductive. They all are proof of what has been known about Peters for a long time: that she is a very good painter, able to create a marvel of effects. These storyboard pictures are based on photographs she found by typing "Syria today" into an image search, which you don't need to know, but which seems obvious once she explains it, given how much Cagean distance they contain and create. You are not in their weather, and they are not in yours, yet they contain a magnetism between the two planes. They admit their remoteness, as a gesture of respect.

In the broadest terms, the project of making pictures of other people and other cultures is an ethical matter as much as an aesthetic one, especially when those people and places are in conflict, and especially because distant conflict is a luxurious fixation for artists in countries where peace presides. Again, the question is not whether to depict the subject matter but how. Peters has taken her time in order to take care. Is it a good thing that we are looking at pictures about looking at pictures of distant culture and conflict? What other options do we have? recommended