Culture- ART FEATURE- Map quest: Howe-Stevens' watery directions

Looking at Suzanne Howe-Stevens' oil paintings on display as part of Migration's summer exhibition, "Elemental Harmonies," I started thinking about strippers. Yes, strippers– specifically the ones in the musical Gypsy who advised the young Gypsy Rose Lee, "You gotta have a gimmick."

Howe-Stevens' gimmick is painting water-filled landscapes on top of maps. All in all, it's not a bad bump and grind.

Howe-Stevens creates her mostly horizontal compositions by placing rectangular images within the borders of maps she's yellowed and made obscure. The maps serve as permeable frames for the watery vistas as Howe-Stevens intentionally dribbles paint down from the landscapes and uses a fine brush to carry reeds and branches beyond the painted area's edges, so the strokes coincide with roads and rivers traceable on the underlying maps.

Occasionally, she initiates trees and vines on the maps' margins and then allows them to intrude into the landscapes, sometimes conjoining with the natural elements depicted. Although there is fluidity between the two spaces, they remain discrete. The painted landscapes almost seem to float on the maps like specimens on glass slides.

According to Migration's Laura Jones, Howe-Stevens is a kayaker, which explains the perspective she presents. Her placid waterways spread across the bottom of her painted areas, pulling the viewer into landscapes of reflective rivers and marshes that move upward toward vanishing points on distant horizons. In other words, she re-creates a paddler's point of view looking across the prow of a boat.

Howe-Stevens also uses her palette to evoke a sense of nostalgia. The visible portions of the maps feel brittle and old, as if retrieved from a musty attic. Similarly, her landscapes incorporate colors associated with weathered iron, moving from patina-like teals and grey-greens to mauve-tinged russets and tarry browns. Occasionally, this intentional sentimentalism gets excessive, e.g. in the too sweet "Sacred Liquid."

Perhaps because they forego the usual shtick, Howe-Steven's three largest pieces are also her strongest. Here the abstract world outlined on the underlying maps is almost completely invisible beneath the artist's borderless land- and seascapes. Whereas the triptych "Marshwalk #32" seduces with its tranquility, her other triptych, "Crossing #1," compels with a violent vision of a rough seas. This landless image, utilizing more mauves and reds than greens and blues, represents a refreshing departure from the show's other images.

As I'm sure Gyspsy's strippers would agree, even a good gimmick needs a change-up now and then.

Suzanne Howe-Stevens' oil paintings are on view at Migration: A Gallery as part of the exhibition "Elemental Harmonies," which runs through August 31. 119 Fifth St. SE. 293-2200.