Smart types have always paired art with something more commercially promising, especially in Minneapolis where there is a long tradition of art galleries cum hair salons, frame shops, ad agencies, architecture firms and now tax prep. Three-years-old and thriving, Fox Tax Gallery is staging a new show, "More Is a Four Letter Word," opening as part of this weekend's Art-a-Whirl celebration.

Located in a one-time felt factory at 503 1st Av. NE., Fox Tax is conveniently located a few blocks from the Mississippi, where Northeast gentrification blends into the neighborhood's more bohemian precincts. Proprietors Alyssa and Mark Fox are accountants specializing in services to artists and musicians, so it seemed only natural to make a gallery in the front end of their bare-brick offices.

Guest curator Emma Berg, a fashionista with a 10-year track record in human resources at Target, picked five young artists as a sample of the kind of talent that fills the lofts and warehouses of Northeast. More than 500 neighborhood artists, musicians, photographers, sculptors and performers will throw open their studios this weekend in an annual ritual of commerce and camaraderie that attracts thousands of revelers. Berg loves the excitement of Art-a-Whirl, but wanted to concentrate and distill the otherwise sprawling event.

"Art-a-Whirl doesn't have many curated shows so it's a chance to focus, and it's an amazing opportunity to put some new artists out there to be seen," Berg said. The show's title is an ironic nod to the recession, which seems to have put a useful cap on conspicuous consumption and "all that vulgarity," she said. But at the same time, "We can't stop making art or enjoying culture; we have to go forward."

With its track lighting, leather banquettes and well-worn floors gleaming under fresh varnish, Fox Tax has a comfortable ambience for its up-to-the-minute art. The "More" five are a trendy bunch of recent art-school grads whose paintings have the signature look of young art today -- colorful, winsome, artfully unfinished, illustrational and/or accented with Pop culture and art historical allusions.

Magical styles

Even so, there are five different styles on display, or rather four different styles since two of the artists, Tynan Kerr and Andie Mazorol, collaborate on every painting. At about 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide, their largest is a high-gloss peach-green-and-blue scene of snakes slithering through a crowd of men in casual wear. Their smaller fantasy portraits vaguely suggest perhaps Humpty Dumpty, Queen Victoria, Hitler, a masked Indian. Or perhaps not.

"They're very loose, washy portraits of people who are just barely there, in a lot of senses," said Kerr. "They feel sort of magical to us."

Magic seems to permeate all of the show's paintings in different ways. Alex Kuno describes his narrative images as "dark, surreal improvised fairy tales." Tapping into the overactive imagination he nurtured growing up in Anoka, he has created a fascinating series of slightly ghoulish but winsome images of children facing nasty perils -- dragon, bear trap, arrow attack -- with plucky bravado. Often wearing animal costumes, the children are frequently caught in archetypal plights from literature or legend including scenes derived from the lives of Saints George and Sebastian.

"It's about the intersection between adult responsibilities and the anxieties and fears of children, and how adult decisions are always based on those fears and dreams," Kuno said.

Zach Pearl, a Des Moines native who graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2006, is making his Art-a-Whirl debut with "Archipelago," a series of surrealistic, multilayered color-pencil drawings on mylar and vellum of mountainous forms with human features -- shaggy hair, mouths, branch-like arms. Adrift in seas of white space, the mountains trail "roots" reminiscent of jellyfish tentacles. Pearl sees them as "psychological portraits," in which the "personality on the surface doesn't necessarily coordinate with the personality below the surface."

Garrett Perry, who last year graduated from St. Paul's College of Visual Art, is participating in Art-a-Whirl for the first time. For income, Perry relies on his job as art director and web designer at Cal Surf in Uptown, but at heart he's a painter. His mostly tablet-sized images are doodlish vignettes of colorful balloon and umbrella shapes spiced occasionally with juicy Pop-style lips, or heads in which faces have been replaced by pastel spheres -- as if the images were materializing through a glass of bubble tea. His hazy impression of Michael Jackson is a shy nod to celebrity portraitist Elizabeth Peyton, whose current show at Walker Art Center moved him.

"I'm really inspired by Elizabeth Peyton's colors, and am drawn to portraits, but mine are abstract portraits and forms," said Perry who also admires the work of Neo Rauch, Luc Tuymans, Daniel Richter, Gerhard Richter and the Leipzig School of German post-realist painters.

If Perry and company are evidence, painting seems to be enjoying a comeback among younger artists after more than a decade in which it was overshadowed by photography, video and installation art.

"I'm only 24 and only out of school for a year, so I'm by no means an authority," Perry said, "but I do think there is a lot of painting going on in the area. Friends are interested in it and there's a general slowing down to appreciate just fun little gems of painting."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431