With the glories of antiquity long buried, the Western world spent 1,600 years perfecting the notion of realism in art, only to let it trickle away into the vast territory of abstraction by the early 20th century.

The mutiny began with Edouard Manet, who in the 1860s declared his restlessness with realism by painting the scandalously ill-proportioned "Olympia" and "Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe," a languid picnic of nude women and clothed men in a very spatially indeterminate landscape. Others, from Cezanne to Jackson Pollock, soon jumped in feet-first. By painting a landscape, figure or object in an abstract style, they achieved a visceral immediacy, one that reveled in the flaws, the psychology and the intangible moments -- not idealized appearances -- of the real world.

However, art was truly liberated from its representational shackles by Wassily Kandinsky, who in 1910 painted the first non-objective painting. Having eliminated all representational references to a subject or narrative, only form, color and shape-shifting space remained. In his revelatory 1911 treatise "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," Kandinsky argued that art, like music, must be independent of the object, and express the inner self.

A century later, abstraction represents a conglomerate of styles -- cubism, abstract expressionism and minimalism, to name a few -- and is secure in the canon of modern art, as evidenced in separate shows by Twin Cities artists Glenn Grafelman and Margaret Pezalla- Granlund. Their different approaches illuminate the range and flexibility of abstraction, its ability to evoke the psychology of color and form, provide a universal means of communication and, potentially, resonate with spirituality.

Grafelman's non-objective oil-on-linen paintings and acrylic-on-paper works at Thomas Barry Fine Arts challenge our perception of space, color and form on a flat surface. The oil paintings, more rigorous in their geometry of floating and overlapping rectangles on uninflected fields of color, test our ability to see color shifts and perceive spatial relationships. The resulting structured compositions and visual rhythms make them heirs to the work of the early 20th-century Russian Suprematist artist Kasimir Malevich and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in their elimination of all motif and associative values.

Grafelman's more expressive works on paper are animated by black, gestural markings that recall the works of Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline in their unstructured appearance yet organizational control of the flat picture plane. Over these seemingly random gestures Grafelman has layered monochromatic rectangles that function as cue cards for reading the pictorial space. Slight variations in color goad the eye to determine the relationship of color to space. Viewed as a trio, "Nowthen," "Portal," and "Driller" intelligently explore red, yellow and blue, the primary colors.

An imaginarium

Working in a notably different mode, Pezalla-Granlund makes jewel-toned, gouache-on-paper paintings. At their core, each is an exploration of the imagination: how we project, whether accurate or not, what we know onto what we do not.

The work, commissioned for this show at Burnet Gallery, ranges in scale from less than a foot square to more than 7 feet tall. Comprising about 40 paintings, it was inspired by astronomer Percival Lowell, a contemporary of Manet and Kandinsky who fueled speculation that there were canals on Mars. Expressive, even dreamy, the paintings suggest atmospheric landscapes. Are we floating through space in "Untitled (blue-planet-cloudy-distance)" or witnessing a South Seas sunrise in "Untitled (gaseous-landscape-yellow-sun)"? Quiet, even contemplative, the works collectively create a sort of visually harmonic sensory deprivation tank, one that dials down the noise of a technology-driven world.

Also supporting Pezalla-Granlund's thesis are four pedestal-top, sculptural tableaux sporting congregations of small plaster buildings stripped of all detail. Featureless, these architectural groups symbolize our earthbound context, the here and now, which we project onto the unknown -- her vividly-hued abstract space. Two short videos of faux planets twirling in space further undergird the slippery slope between the imagined and the real.

On first take, her paintings may seem too empty, too undefined other than by color to wield lasting effect. But this is precisely the source of their seduction. We can be absorbed by their ethereal presence and project whatever associations, whatever narratives, we choose upon their receptive surfaces.