The people behind "Painter, Painter" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are quick to admit the show of abstracts asks more questions than it answers.
"Painter, Painter" is a snapshot of works by 15 abstract painters from around the U.S. and Europe, including Jay Heikes of Minneapolis.
Three of the show's artists discuss how they all struggle with the question: what is painting?
Heikes leads a quick tour of his studio on the edge of downtown. It's littered with a wonderous array of objects. Only a few appear to be paintings. Items hanging from a wall look like huge multi-colored scabs, but are actually molded, pigmented gelatin. They are very cool in a creepy, crinkly kind of way, as are the canvases hanging nearby which look like cave paintings.
These are the results of Heikes' recent artistic explorations. However they are not part of "Painter Painter." That honor is reserved for what Heikes calls "the tools." He points to his collection of hammers, screwdrivers, and drills mounted above his worktable.
"One day I was looking at this tool wall and I started to think that it made no sense to make the work with these tools anymore so I had to make new tools," Heike said. "Then I started to make these other tool walls."
Those are the other implements hanging across the room. They are made from found objects like car parts, bones and yarn, shaped and combined in interesting ways and then carefully hung ready for use. Heikes said they are abstract tools designed for painting although he doesn't know how yet.
"It is more about painting, than painting in some way," he said.
Painting is a primal pastime. Humans have been arguing about the merits of individual pieces since time immemorial. As an art form, it ebbs and flows in popularity.
But Walker assistant curators Eric Crosby and Bart Ryan argue painting is now once again in the ascendency. Crosby said they have spent the last couple of years visiting artists studios to find new work.
"I feel that our show asks questions asks questions more than it posits answers and that is kind of more interesting," Crosby said.
Interesting, and frankly frustrating to those people who don't understand abstract art. Regarding the question posed earlier: given all the other new media out there, why painting? And why abstracts? In its early days, abstract painting drew howls of protest from old school purists. Now it can be seen it everywhere.
The pieces in the Walker Gallery are striking in their freshness. The aroma of oil paint and linseed hangs thickly in the air. There are geometric designs, chaotic explosions of color, even pieces of painted canvas which hang out of their frames like damp laundry.
It's not hard to imagine some visitors looking at these pieces and wondering whether they are indeed paintings, but Ryan said not to get hung up.
"Just accept that it's a painting, and then ask if it's a good painting or a bad painting," Ryan laughed.
Chicago artist Molly Zuckerman-Hartung's work combines canvases, torn drop-cloth netting, vintage plastic furniture, even handcuffs.
Zuckerman-Hartung, who teaches at Northwestern University, said now is a fertile time for painting because there is a war of ideas going on.
"There's just been massive crisis in how people think about art and how people think about technology and globalism and everything has really skyrocketed," she said.
In the next gallery, New York-based Matt Connors stands before his huge canvas called "First Straight Third (red/blue)."
"For me it's pretty complex," Connors said. "But to describe it, it's red and blue squares on top of each other."
Connors said a great deal of his work is just time spent looking and thinking about what he is doing: the psychological implications of mixing colors. He calls painting his language of inquiry and uses it just as poets and composers use their mediums.
"I think the question of 'why painting?' is never going away," Connors said. "And it's fun to come up with new ways to come up with that question."
"Painter Painter" is the Walker Art Center's first group painting show in a decade. No one involved believes it will be the last.