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Visitation By Venus 

A must-see exhibit at Joie Lassiter Gallery

The potent force of mythology and echoes of the distant past filtered through paintings of the 18th century resonate in the exhibition Fragments by Maja Godlewska, currently on view at Joie Lassiter Gallery. To misread these large-scale works as merely lush or delicious in appearance is to undermine their intellectual intensity. While "Venus & Time," "Blue Nebula" and "Europa," for example, are enriched by Baroque & Rococo references and adorned with luscious surface detail, there's much, much more going on within these layered paintings than a casual nod to a particularly lavish period in painting's historic past.

For pure sensual magnitude, there's nothing quite like the painting of France's Ancien Regime, when art grew opulent in the extreme. Godlewska's excursions into modeling some of the sensual fleshiness of Boucher and other Rococo painters on her canvases are fun to look at... and were probably fun to make.

The question of whether the artist is attracted to the glowing gold and the flesh tones so inherent in post-Baroque European art for their symbolic qualities -- or for the pure physical pleasure of paint-handling -- is secondary to the clear sense of serious play that's evident in these multi-layered paintings.

Seriousness underlies paintings such as "Hora and the Course of the Sun" or "Fifth Continent," which contain more than pastiche, and offer more than the empty posturing that prevails in so many cynical postmodern allusions to art history.

While Venus the goddess in all her glory presides over the interior of Joie Lassiter Gallery, Godlewska makes other allusions as well. "Noosa," for example, exhibits a swirl of energy with all the cosmic intensity of Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Yet other work is more abstract.

For a painter, subjects and materials affect each other -- back and forth, in symbiotic dialogue. Heavy, lush babes lying around on canvas may be important personal symbols for an artist, derived from one's personal art history background, or from a quest seeking direction, finding and rejecting influences from history. Two distinctive tracks blend in Godlewska's quest: the imagery and the media, which mix together in a potent visual cocktail.

Godlewska articulates subtle underlayers of acrylic paint, magicking illusions of depth to reenact a corporeal "L'Odalisque Brune," by French painter Francois Boucher (1743-1745). This piece incited one art viewer to comment that "coming across these Old Masters is like seeing an old friend." But these old friends are revisited from a very different perspective from the original paintings.

While the physical beauty of the painting impresses the superficial visitor, the more discerning viewer feels time and art history compressed by Godlewska's clever paraphrasing of the original work juxtaposed with other painterly references.

A more abstract work, "Fragment" (acrylic and oil on linen), contains a personal motif, a white swipe of paint combed straight down the painting's lower edge. This resembles a body of water, a foreground pond, not yet frozen but in the process of freezing. Hints of a Dutch landscape hover on the surface, but with its sandy pale background, "Fragment" is also like a desert mirage, a reference called forth by the white swipe wet-on-wet technique.

Using soft muted pinks, blues, rusted areas and the warm white of ivory, Godlewska's palette shows restraint -- especially important in her use of metallic coloration. Within this self-imposed limitation, Godlewska's range becomes all the more powerful. Some heavy earthy additions for contrast provide weight: Dark blue resonates marvelously against the fleshy dabs and Naples yellow of a painting like "Fragment," scudding across the surface to give the artwork a sense of energy and movement.

While many of these works are simply gorgeous, others are more difficult, and less successful. "Templete" and "Kaisersaal," for instance, lack the innate delicacy and grace of other pieces; they appear ungainly, with predominating forms that lack depth, and hang awkwardly in space like slabs of meat.

Several paintings are pleasingly zaftig, containing feminine forms that glow with light, and while not literally mythological, have otherworldly overtones. Borrowing from Tiepolo and other masters, Godlewska captures the sensuality of the Baroque painters and the fancy Rococo refinement of Boucher and Fragonard.

Cole Porter might croon, "This is painting!" For an analogy, it's live music -- a string quartet playing in your living room, with only lights -- and perhaps some heating to add to the comfort of you and the players -- as your sole concessions to the technological world. Compare this experience to listening to a recording of the same string quartet, and you'll see the differences lying between the computerized image, so easily obtained, and this very real painting.

Godlewska's paintings capture this immediacy. Some contain fiery, inky elements, and rather than basing her imagery on something realistic and contemporary, she focuses on the metaphor of an ancient dream, on historical and fantastical references to the human figure, to geography, to nature. There are no man-made objects in the paintings.

The treasure trove of art that's so often found within the Joie Lassiter Gallery reminds me of an oasis in the grim asphalt desert that surrounds the glum little building sitting in lonely isolation on Ninth Street in First Ward. Like a plain-faced Easter egg, the gallery opens to reveal a shining magical world within. Godlewska's paintings provide a portal to a mythological world, a visitation by Venus. The richness of these paintings makes a poignant contrast with the grim realities of Charlotte's urban wasteland outside the walls.

As First Ward gets redeveloped, as slowly but surely it will, the current home of the Lassiter Gallery will vanish beneath an urban park and its surrounding new buildings. Lassiter helps Charlotte define its contemporary art scene; one hopes Charlotte and its developers will return the compliment with a less temporary and grander space to view breathtaking delights with such shining substance as Maja Godlewska's Fragments.

For people who love pure painting, this show is a must-see.

The exhibit Fragments is on display through November 30 at the Joie Lassiter Gallery, 318 East Ninth St. For more information, visit www.lassitergallery.com/Godlewska/maja.htm or call 704-373-1463.

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