Seattle Times originally published Friday, June 15, 2012 By Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times Arts Writer

  Beach II, oil on canvas, Meg Holgate, 2012

Beach II, oil on canvas, Meg Holgate, 2012

Artists Holgate and Becker-Black transcend the limits of landscape and portraiture
Earlier this year Friesen Gallery, a two-branch Seattle/Sun Valley operation owned by Andria Friesen, engaged in a friendly sort of cell division and became two separate galleries under two different owners.

Jonathan Wood, director of the Seattle branch, bought and renamed the Seattle gallery in January, consolidating its rather odd layout (two unconnected spaces with separate entrances) into a single, more manageable showroom. It's now Friesen Abmeyer Fine Art (Abmeyer is his mother's maiden name), and

if recent shows by Steve Jensen (glass) and Jason Walker (ceramics) are anything to go by, Wood has a

canny eye for unusual work in traditional media.

The new shows at the gallery, Seattle artist Meg Holgate's "Blueprint" (oils on canvas) and Portland artist Alexandra Becker-Black's "Transcendence" (watercolors on paper), similarly use familiar means to achieve arresting effects.

Holgate might be called a "landscape artist," but that doesn't begin to suggest the fluid, floating, semiabstract worlds that emerge from her paintbrush. Her artist bio mentions her reverence for the work of sculptor Henry Moore and painter Mark Rothko, and you can see sinuous Moore-like curves in her handling of space and a meditative Rothko-like palette in her handling of color.

Her simple titles — "Beach," "Beach II," "Waterfall," "Waterfall II," etc. — make clear her sources of inspiration. But they don't indicate her bold, counterintuitive infusions of, say, lime-green into a sandy beach or rust-brown into a pale cirrus cloud. These may not be colors you'd see in nature, but they feel compositionally right. Indeed, the way they stretch what's credible or "natural" immerses you all the more vigorously in what you're seeing.

Holgate also cites as an influence the principles of Japanese Wabi Sabi, an aesthetic that focuses on "the beauty of things" and revels, as she puts it, in the "imperfect, irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, murky and simple." While the subtlety of her brushwork and color blends knocks you out the more you study it, the overall effect of each painting is clarity itself.

In general, the looser Holgate's approach is to beachscapes, moonrises and waterfalls, the better. A couple of items in the show, "Islands" and "Islands II," hew more toward realism, and while they're pretty, they don't seduce you and engulf you the way her less-sharply defined vistas do.

Becker-Black's watercolors, all portraits or nudes, offer equally engaging contradictions. The details of her faces are, mysteriously, both precise and blurred, as though you're reading a kind of photorealism through smeary lenses. Her ability to suggest without spelling out can be extraordinary.

In "Lost," a self-portrait, Becker-Black makes herself half-present, half-ghostlike. Her ability to transform the "bleeding" edge of the watercolor, as it soaks into the paper, into a precise observation of her own physiognomy and expression is remarkable.

There's a slightly unhinged expressionist element in her work, too, as seemingly random stains and streaks add to the energy of the personality being depicted. "Tribulation," a portrait of a balding man with his eyes raised anxiously (the artist's father), bristles with energy, its distortions and precisions fused perfectly together. (You'd have no trouble picking out this guy on the street, yet his portrait has depths and dimensions that go well beyond mere snapshot verisimilitude.)

Becker-Black's nudes similarly blend faithful observation with a sense of otherworldliness. Her "Icarus," with t Doomed boy's head/hair seeming to dissolve in the air as he falls, is sublime.