by Marty Demarest & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "A & lt;/span & big crate just arrived from L.A. with another painting!" Lorinda Knight exclaims to me in an e-mail a week before artist Keiko Hara's show of paintings goes on display April 6 at the Lorinda Knight Gallery.

Several days after that e-mail, I also arrive at Lorinda Knight in the midst of dozens of wide flat cardboard boxes and paintings that are leaning around the edges the bright gallery. More than half-a-dozen paintings in 5-foot-tall frames stretch along the longest wall, intruding on the broad white space with frantic blocks of color -- pumpkin orange, night-sky blue, white that whispers violet.

Larger paintings lean against the opposite wall, languidly displaying expansive surfaces grown-over with colors. Overlapping lines like text descending in The Matrix or vines overgrowing a wall cover pieces of paper the size of people. An enormous canvas draped with plastic leans against another wall, towering over the others with its back towards the room.

As I enter the gallery, some of the paintings are moving. A screen of heavy violet shot through with wavering veins of crimson glides across the room. Behind it, a tall black-and-white painting pivots across the floor, revealing Lorinda Knight herself carrying it across the room. At the bottom of the large plum-colored painting, Keiko Hara's legs emerge, walking the picture to another wall.

Keiko Hara is a small woman with generously sympathetic eyes, but she grabs her unwieldy canvases with a focused verve and moves them determinedly into place. The large pictures shuffle and glide around the room, dancing in layers of color that are already alive with Hara's busy brushstrokes.

Then, like a child standing in front of a megalithic gift, Hara begins to untangle thin clear plastic from the largest canvas. She flops the entire painting flat onto the gallery floor. It wafts to the ground, only slightly heavier than air. Hara and Knight drag the plastic off and turn it toward me.

The entire gallery illuminates with the colors of the painting, Space.M, as it is turned. A honeyed glow reflects up to the gallery's high ceiling. Tints of green light find their way to the wall. Rose reflects on Hara and Knight's faces.

On the single vast canvas of Space.M, Hara has captured the exuberance of a springtime garden. Its colors are innumerable, flowing in filigrees of varying density. The painting is abstract, with masses of colors and textures joining together in a sort of frenetic pointillism in which the dots of color have taken a journey through 20th-century abstraction and become fluid flows of paint. In some corners of the painting, the shades congregate into bruises of blue or scrims of mossy green. Over them all dance whorls of gold.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & pace.M is the star piece in a show of paintings that represents Keiko Hara at the height of her artistry. Throughout the exhibit are traces of the departures that Hara has taken over the years. Many of the canvases are touched with the neon, almost chrome colors that infused Hara's last show at Lorinda Knight in 2002. Each painting also captures the layered colors that Hara poured into her glass installations for Whitman College, along with the collage work and scope of her 42-foot-long triptych, Topophilia-Imbuing in Monet (due to be exhibited at American University in Washington, D.C., this autumn).

"I think it's so exciting to investigate," Hara tells me as I point out traces of her past experiments in the gallery's paintings. "I can always discover something that's very new whenever I work in a different format or medium. It just gives me much more exciting new possibilities."

Excitement is the driving emotion behind Hara's current show. Recently retired from teaching at Whitman College, Hara has only just discovered the freedom of being a full-time artist.

"I told Lorinda I was going to L.A.," Hara says, laughing, when I ask about the different intensity of her recent paintings. "My studio heating bill was so high [in Walla Walla] that I decided to go south and focus on my work. So I got a lot of canvases and I was all ready to go and I had ideas...."

Despite her prolific schedule -- she made twice as many paintings for the show than she will exhibit -- Hara says she never rushes a painting, even when she's excited about it.

"I never work on my art just for a show," she explains. "Many times a work is sitting in the studio for a long time, because I work on things for a certain period and then I really have to look at them. So they go on the wall and then they come back." Hara looks at Space.M. "I really felt good about it, so I stopped."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ara's exploration of space-on-canvas has led her to stage installations in which viewers literally walk through the paintings, and her move toward larger work is directly linked with a desire to immerse the viewer.

"Monet really wanted to surround the viewer," Hara says as she explains that Monet's enormous Water Lilies triptych, which has had a profound effect on her. "At the end of his life, he painted these big pictures and was criticized for being too abstract."

Like Monet, Hara's paintings evoke nature, even when the paintings themselves seem resolutely abstract. Caught in the mesh of colors and lines, elusive forms seem to disappear when watched too closely. Colors peek through each other in layers, changing their hue and intensity as quickly as daylight changes in a room. The corners of the canvases sparkle with reflections from other parts of the paintings, as though space had folded itself around Hara's colors.

When I ask her when she started to paint abstract works, she thinks back to when she was an art student in Japan. "I was working one day, and it was raining, and suddenly something hit me that I couldn't do with a representational work. So I left my studio and I just painted -- my first abstract painting. Something hit me -- an overwhelming need to say something, but I couldn't do it with a representational image. That was the beginning of abstraction for me.

"My mark-making isn't just mark-making," Hara continues. "When I want to paint something, I have a very strong urge in me -- I cannot really describe it. It's just in me, and it grows and I have to paint. I am searching. And I would like the viewer to be able to go into my works and really search their own way, too."

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Feb. 13
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