Some artists stake out easily recognizable styles early in their careers. A viewer can walk into a room hung with their paintings and immediately know whose work is on the wall. A collector -- if interested in impressing visitors with his impeccable taste -- can confidently purchase a painting by one of these artists, knowing its provenance will never be in doubt.
Fleta Monaghan is not one of those artists.
"Your work is all over the place," is the comment Monaghan says she hears most from other artists. So is her schedule: Since moving to Asheville in the late '80s, Monaghan, a single mom, has worked on several how-to books for Lark Books, taught children's classes around town, and poured a tremendous amount of time and energy into creating sets, costumes and props for a dance company.
Now, with her daughter all grown up and a BFA degree from UNCA under her belt, Monaghan spends most of her time in her Riverside studio. Her only real distraction these days is teaching a few classes in her own space.
Monaghan studied with Elma Johnson at UNCA, and apparently inherited Johnson's insatiable appetite for trying out new materials and looking for new methods and techniques. Some of her paintings are done in oil, some in acrylic, and many in mixed media. She constantly searches for materials that will create the elusive effects pioneered by the masters, old and modern.
Monaghan's style is as varied as her materials. In her exhibition at The North End Gallery, she includes allegorical portraits in the style of the High Renaissance, blurry canvases picturing little villages, a few totally abstract works, a couple of pieces combining abstraction and figuration, and a series of paintings of her night-blooming cirrus, an amazing tropical plant that blooms only once a year, late at night, with an extraordinary blossom that's dead by morning.
Then there are the pears: simple, straightforward works, each featuring a single pear. Monaghan says she developed the series after the pear tree in her Fairview yard starting producing buckets and buckets of fruit this fall. What to do with all the pears became a serious problem, and she decided to draw a pear a day. When the last pear began to rot, she says, "It was hard to stop." The exercise provided the exhibition with some of its best works. Loose and sketchy, they are well-drawn and confident.
The abstract paintings demonstrate how juxtaposing one color against another can change both. The paintings with houses are mostly small, near-monochromatic affairs. The doorways repeat the portal shapes found in other works. Her "House #2" is a small work executed in grays with a brown 'x' in front of the house. The surface of the piece is rich with layering, rubbing and scratching.
The portraits are named for saints, and feature the likenesses of local artists. They are all meticulously rendered. Erin Braasch, a principal dancer for the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater and co-director of the Fringe Festival, is depicted as outcast St. Germaine, who spent her life with a flock of sheep.
Elma Johnson remembers Monaghan as a dedicated student. "Fleta draws beautifully," Johnson says, "but the finest work she did at UNCA was her undergraduate research project. She cast handmade paper to make a group of life-sized pregnant women sitting in an obstetrician's waiting room. It was a very moving piece and anyone who saw it has remembered it." The works may seem scattered and disjointed, but they convey a unified message. Monaghan leaves it to the viewer to discern it.
[Connie Bostic is a painter and writer based in Asheville.]
Fleta Monaghan's paintings will be on display at the North End Gallery, 175 Weaverville Highway, through Jan. 31. 658-3484.