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“Strictly Painting” isn’t merely a regional all-painting biennial. It’s also a knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred, brass-knuckled throwdown between painters vying for that ultimate art-world trophy—-recognition. (And a check.) Last night, during a reception at the McLean Center for the Arts for the 21 finalist painters, the show’s juror and MC, Hirshhorn associate curator Kristen Hileman, announced the best in show: Timothy App, Ryan Carr Johnson, Cory Drieth, and Jo Smail. Each artist took home the same $500 in prize money. They settled all questions of ranking between themselves afterward in the steel cage.

Actually, the most brutal exchange took place before the awards were announced. During a Q&A session following Hileman’s brief introduction to the show, one viewer put her in the hot seat: “What is color field painting?” No mean trick, answering that. Hileman explained that, in fact, critics and curators are a little quick to attach labels to artists. She said that instead of picking artworks that resonated most with the 1960s Washington Color School, she trusted that artists who submitted works for this color field—themed show probably had their reasons for believing they qualified—-which gave her license to just pick the best works. (Yeah, it’s a bit of a dodge, but I don’t blame her. It’s a tough question. I took a stab at answering it last month.)

What about the winners? I’d’ve put Jeffry Cudlin in the winners’ circle. (Note: He’s a City Paper contributing writer—-also, he gave me a ride home.) This new abstract direction in his work is looks like it will be lucrative. But I don’t quibble with Hileman’s picks. Though I didn’t get to it in my write-up of the show, I spent a lot of time looking at App’s Meninas (pictured). His painting borrows from Lee Bontecou‘s russet palette; more than the Minimalist label he’s often tagged with, his work recalls the geometric city paintings by Georgia O’Keefe. Definitely a winner. (The Baltimore City Paper ran a review on a short survey of his App’s works.)