Avoiding the goddess

Some of the worst paintings of the last three decades are those purported to represent the “sacred feminine.”

So a first-glance reaction to Julia Masaoka current abstract works on display through Aug. 28 at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, might be: “Oh, no, more goddess paintings!”

Masaoka does, indeed, include vulva shapes in some of these works — but she has wisely avoided saddling her pieces with soppy, reverential titles. More importantly, the images are not (thank God) rendered exclusively in fuchsia and lavender.

That’s not to say that “river rock I” and “river rock III” contain no pink paint. But Masaoka’s palette is broad, her color sense sound: She avoids the chasm. The subtle, meditative “new mexico dream rock,” “moon icon” and “mediation tree” all have vulva-like shapes, but the artist’s intelligent placements on the picture plane and skillful use of color help these works circumvent the blatant.

Most of Masaoka’s titles evoke the landscape — she documents rock, sunset, mountain, cactus, river, tree. Accordingly, she risks accusations of being overly influenced by Georgia O’Keeffe, or any number of other nature-loving abstractionists from the early 20th century.

Masaoka’s “new mexico dream rock” certainly bows to O’Keeffe, but the piece’s layers of complexity and variations in shape and color give it a distinct personality. “new mexico” is active, but restrained; an orange central shape fades to lavender — then is interrupted on the right side by a seed-shaped object in reds and bright pinks that could be a dividing cell.

The exhibit’s simplest work, “moon icon,” is among its strongest. In the painting, a white ovoid shape drops diagonally from the top of the canvas, and is split by an earth-colored slash that, upon closer inspection, could be a swaddled figure holding an equally swaddled baby (the only hint of figuration that appears in these selected works). A modulated background in earthy purples echoes the fecund slash.

The painting “summer rock” is a beautiful study in light and luminosity: Soft pastel colors fade in and out of an ambiguous central shape — but there is nothing uncertain in the black outlined circle engaged in microcosmic flight. Perhaps this hard-edged wheel shape is some holdover of the decorated-hubcap shrines — all devoted to the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe — that Masaoka has exhibited to much acclaim over the last few years in various local venues.

Again ruminative but not static, “meditation tree” is a satisfying painting. Forms suggesting tree branches undulate up either side of the canvas, touching just before they reach the top and then traveling their separate ways. The tree shapes are painted in reds and blues, while something filmy and strange seems to hang heavily from twigs on either side. An arbor (or perhaps a letter in Chinese calligraphy) sits in the creamy lower space created by the branches.

Like O’Keeffe, Masaoka attempts to downplay the gender references in her work, though she has said that she’s seeking a balance in the world’s male/female energy. And, yes, she has even been known to speak of the “divine feminine.”

But these paintings are about rocks and water and trees.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]

Julie Masaoka’s solo show runs through Saturday, Aug. 28, at Black Mountain Center for the Arts (225 W. State St.). Call 669-0930 for more information.

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