What to do with a blank canvas? For the past century that question has bedeviled artists with a bent toward abstraction.

Once Kasimir Malevich made his legendary white-on-white painting around 1918 and Franz Kline reposted with black-on-black in the 1950s, the parameters of nonrepresentational art were pretty much defined. And yet artists continue rising to the challenge.

The 27 Minnesotans whose work is showcased in "Abstraction in Action," on view through May 14 at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts (MCA), have attacked the issue with insight, originality and admirable skill. Most of their 50-plus creations are paintings or other wall compositions, but the show's reach extends to photography and a few unusual sculptures. Co-curated by MCA exhibit director Robert Bowman and artist/instructor Ellen Richman, "Abstraction" is handsomely displayed in the center's spacious gallery overlooking greening lawns and a sunny patio.

As "my kid could do that" jokes suggest, abstract art can seem easy. Good work, however, requires intention and deft articulation. The art must be the right size for the idea. Line and design need to interact with color, texture, sheen. Spontaneity and gestures matter. So do materials. Throughout, the "Abstraction in Action" artists execute their desired effects with aplomb, whether they are applying a sheer veil of color to suggest diaphanous light or constructing a spooky seabed from concrete-infused canvas.

Drawing with light

"Drawings" by Nicole Roberts Hoiland sets out the issues. It consists of 44 fist-sized tangles of string, petrified in stoneware and liquid plastic, arcing across the entrance wall. A veritable dictionary of abstract marks, the multicolored knots slump, dangle, protrude, are tightly coiled or playfully expansive. Their shadows, which look like scribbles on the wall, are ephemeral drawings made with light. At once messy and controlled, "Drawings" seems like a throwaway but goes to the very heart of abstraction.

Scott Helmes' "Sonnet" drawings are equally subtle. One consists of dashes of watercolor arranged like words on a page, the other of scribbled calligraphic marks that suggest musical notation or verse written in an antique hand. Wordless and abstract, but poetry nevertheless.

Hovering halfway between sculpture and painting, Kim Matthews' "Colony II" is memorable for its odd, compelling beauty. About 50 inches square, it hangs on the wall but seems to have emerged from ocean depths. It consists of hundreds of irregular canvas cones with decapitated tips. Dipped in concrete, the hollow gray cones look like a dense colony of open-mouthed sea creatures. Though stationary, they seem to move, sigh, breathe and whisper dark mysteries.

Among other experimental pieces, Pete Driessen's two "Throw-blanket" wall sculptures are notably clever. Both are gaudy thrift-store finds — a blanket composed of hundreds of hand-knit daisies, and another of multicolored chevrons — that he has accented with iridescent tints, stretched to mural-size proportions and preserved in acrylic gels. Post-Pop sculptures today, they are sure to enchant archaeologists a millennium from now.

Deft designs

The show's more conventional pieces are deftly executed, too. Polly Norman cleverly plays with scale in "Lifesavers," a black-and-white photo that she has saturated with color and printed on canvas. At more than 3 feet square, it gleams with bright hues — orange, blue, olive — that enhance the visual puns in doughnut shapes that could be candies, swimming pool toys or both.

By contrast with Norman's Pop intensity, Bobbie McMonagle's "Beginnings" is a soft-edged mirage of watery colors; Cheryl Krause's "In the Moment" suggests tectonic plates or aerial vistas of landscapes, and Shawn McNulty uses pumice to thicken the texture of his chalky abstractions "Elephant" and "Peek." Sarah Struck is particularly deft in staining her canvases to produce illusions of shimmering light in "RSVP Me" and "Green Up." And Emily Donovan has employed hand-dyed paper and beeswax to fashion batik-like designs that depict nothing specific but hint at geological layers under the Earth's crust.

Carolina Brunet makes excellent use of bold slashes of navy, black and white in her emotive but crisply designed "Stormy Sea" and "Lines." And Carl Beihl expertly deploys drips, streaks and layers of color to create his handsome weather-inspired abstractions "Icy Regard" and "Calm Rain."

Additional featured artists are: Genie Castro, Nicolas Darcourt, Michael Eble, George Farrah, Jane Johnson, Christopher Harrison, Linda Deg Lee, Shakun Maheshwari, Andrew Nordin, Tom Nye, Michelle Plombon, Tom Reynen, Mark Rode, Denise Tennen and David Yantos.

mary.abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431