Opening night! Nothing else is as thrilling, even if the “performers” are works of art, and especially when the curtains open on a new era. For its inaugural exhibition of the “Art NOW” series, the Ann Arbor Art Center can take a bow.

As exhibit organizer Lea Bult explains, the A2AC’s long-standing annual printmaking show has been recast to include painting, photography, and sculpture. Each year one of those four areas will take the main stage. The debut of “Painting 2015” was a barn burner even in its auditions, garnering 400 submissions from around the country–a 300 percent increase over the usual number. Though many submissions came from other states, three-quarters of those chosen were by Ann Arbor and regional artists, a testament to the strength of talent here.

The sheer number of submissions may be a tribute to the star power of juror Peter Williams. A painting professor at the University of Delaware (and formerly of Wayne State University), he’s shown at such luminary museums as the Whitney, the Walker Art Center, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, where his work is in the permanent collection.

When I arrived on opening night in April, lights were still being adjusted, but the performers were all ready for their close-ups. As an audience of one, I had the whole play to myself at first–but then I stepped out of character: I forgot my role as hard-nosed reporter and heard myself gasp at several works.

The first was for a huge, sunny abstract of yellows and pinks done in encaustic and spray paint by Mary Rousseaux. It warmly ushers you in and, oddly, highlights the two tiny works on either side. See especially the one on the left, a remarkably deft oil portrait of a child by Bartosz Beda.

Another gasp-inducer is “The Protector,” a diptych portrait of a young man by Adam Beeman. Bold and luminous, it won the third-place prize.

But it was the Best in Show, awarded after I left, that kept me fascinated–and creeped out. “Cheek Spreader Sagan” by Christine Wuenschel–a portrait of a woman wearing a plastic dental appliance that retracts her lips–is ominous and strong, muscular and menacing, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, despite a dental phobia. Even after I walked away, I felt its eyes on me, and its pull.

In fact, I was pulled back to every piece in the show. A great mix of representational and abstract, of new and recombined materials, it showcases what painting is in 2015. And it ain’t just paint. It’s mixed media, collage, spray paint, resin. It’s sandbags as an integral part of a painting. It’s layered newspapers and photos, painted strips hanging together and moving apart. It’s the unimaginable being created anyway. And it’s worth a couple hours of your life before May 23, when the show closes.