Lauren Mantecón is in her studio, sipping rum and talking very intensely about the things she likes to talk about--art, gender, feminism, beauty--when, at the end of a phrase, as if to punctuate it, something crashes down onto the roof with damn-near-meteoric impact. "It's just a pear falling off my tree," she says, unperturbed. "I have the biggest, most dangerous pear tree in Portland. When I throw outdoor parties, I give my guests hard hats."

The artist pulls out a couple of trays of her slides, arranged chronologically, to explain the history behind her show this month at Mark Woolley, Touring the Void.

"Take a look," she says. "I have my whole life down to a carousel and a half."

Willamette Week: Looking over these slides, I see a lot of different styles, but you seem to be returning to some recurring themes.

Lauren Mantecón: Yes, definitely. I notice that the work I'm doing now interconnects with what I was doing 15 years ago. I've always been interested in beauty and how everyone has a different idea of what beauty is. And I've always been interested in what it means to be a female abstract painter. When we think of Abstract Expression-ism, we always think of it as this really masculine movement, with Pollock and de Kooning and all those guys. But to me, the act of painting is a very feminine act. It's a messy job: the fluids, the natural pigments, the organic materials, the sensual properties of oil paint. Painting is about alchemy, intuition and exorcising emotion, which are things we typically think of as feminine.

Do you think you've been ghettoized as a feminist artist?

Yes. The Oregonian did a piece on me called "Feminine Obsessive." Willamette Week once did a story on me that was subtitled something like, "Lauren Mantecón wants to show you what sex looks like." It's a way to pigeonhole. I mean, am I a feminist? I'm a female--it's my experience--how could I not be? But am I angry? Absolutely not. To me, the term "feminism" still implies division. I'm more interested in human dynamics and androgyny and the melting pot where we all come together.

But you do create art that deals with feminist issues--your installation up at the Bellevue Art Museum, for example, 99 Pink Boxes.

Sure. Those pink boxes were metaphors for...use your imagination. But they were all laid out in a grid, with one spot missing in the grid--a void--and to me, it was about how the grid is a way to control the feminine. But I've been interested in feminism for a long time. When I was 15, I had an eating disorder. I weighed 102 pounds and I thought I was fat. I had moved to Laguna Beach, Calif., in high school, which was like this pit of Beverly Hills 90210, with all these kids in their Porsches. All the popular girls hated me. It was so superficial, this whole beach scene. A nightmare. So it got me thinking about the idea of femininity and beauty, and how beauty encompasses both the passive and the active. We have a choice: Do we just stand around passively, being admired because we're beautiful, or do we do something to actively create beauty?

Why did you title your current show Touring the Void?

The whole idea of the void has such negative connotations: It's something that's empty, desolate, lifeless. But I look at the void as presence and absence simultaneously, as sitting here with an open mind and trusting that something is going to emerge from nothing. I think we should celebrate the void, look at it--at loneliness and emptiness--as a positive thing that we need to make peace with. We need to trust the unknown, the subconscious, the spiritual. We need to surrender to the uncertainties of life. And this show is the first time I've just surrendered, where I haven't thought, I've just done.

And what came out of it, this surrendering of yours to the void?

Hopefully, something approaching my goal, which is to hit the ecstasy, the sublime in life. I'm striving for interconnectedness between all of us and a connection with something higher. Why are we here on this planet? To be alone? No. We need to break the barriers of separateness: male/female, Republican/Democrat, and on and on. That's what I'm aiming for, and I'll keep painting until I hit it.

Touring the Void, Lauren Mantecón

Mark Woolley Gallery,

120 NW 9th Ave., Suite 210, 224-5475.

Closes Oct. 2.