A review of works by Portland artist Alexandra Becker-Black, which are firmly in the figurative realm, and Seattle painter Leslie Stoner’s abstract encaustics, at Abmeyer + Wood.

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Two new shows at Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art provide a study in contrasts on how to get at the heart of human experience.

Portland artist Alexandra Becker-Black stays firmly in the figurative realm, but with a deep iconographic impulse behind her work. Seattle painter Leslie Stoner’s abstract encaustics, on the other hand, find ways to make color, shape and texture reflect quite specific moods and frames of mind.

The works in “Icons of Awakening” are small in number: nine watercolors on paper, mounted on wood and arranged in three triptychs. But they show an artist in total command of her chosen medium.


Alexandra Becker-Black: ‘Icons of Awakening’ and Leslie Stoner: ‘Where the Darkness Meets the Light’

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays through May 30, Abmeyer + Wood Fine Art, 1210 Second Ave., Seattle (206-628-9501 or abmeyerwood.com).

Using only three key images — of a skull, a rose and a male or female nude in dancerlike action — Becker-Black conjures up a life-in-death/death-in-life dynamism. She also startles your eye with the way she uses water­colors. Glimpsed from a distance, her nine works seem to be hyper-precise pencil drawings. Step closer, though, and within her meticulously contoured lines you’ll spot the subtle watercolor-bleed effects that bring her images to remarkable life.

One triptych — consisting of a rose (“Bloom”), a male nude with outstretched hands (“Balance”) and a skull (“Decay”) — reveals Becker-Black’s visual world in its most straightforward form, even if the sophistication of her technique is anything but simple.

In a second triptych, things get more complex, starting with the relationship between titles and images, and continuing with the nature of the imagery itself: a skull with roses for eyes (“Awakening”) and two stretching male nudes on either side of the skull (titled “Expand” and “Dissolve”).

The nudes, despite their titles suggesting they’re polar opposites, are mirror images of each other, both with arched bodies fading to transparency just above the figures’ chins. As for “Awakening,” it seems simultaneously to be coming to life with its rose-bloom eyes and luring you to the grave with its bone hollows. Like the male nudes flanking it, it’s de­materializing before your eyes.

In a third triptych, two near-identical female nudes face a solitary rose stem, its flower not yet in full bloom. Its titles, from left to right, read “Devotion,” “Purity” and “Surrender.”

While “devotion” and “surrender” both evoke relationships in which a focus on the “other” comes at the expense of one’s self, “devotion” seems an active state while “surrender” feels passive. Between her verbal paradoxes and her visual rigor, Becker-Black keeps the mind and eye engaged — and guessing.

With Stoner, in “Where the Darkness Meets the Light,” it’s also important to read the titles before assessing the work, which otherwise might simply come off as pleasing moody visuals.

In “I’ve Been Sinking Low,” rising ocean waves of dark marine blue all but overwhelm the band of white light at the top of the canvas. “This Strange Cold Ground” hints at the figurative, with its suggestion of black sky in its top margin and a field of snow white in its lower two-thirds, with a stylized skeletal hand reaching up out of its lower left-hand corner.

Stoner’s titles can verge on melodramatic — “Doubt and Confusion They Find Me” is the most extreme — yet they’re essential in helping you read the paintings. As for her sense of how much emotive information color-swirls and turbulent textures can convey to the viewer, it’s entirely persuasive.