Painter Joe Thurston's style is shocking, even off-putting: portraits of women whose faces are, as he says, "flayed." Flayed as in "stripped of skin." His paintings are many things-confrontational, creepy, haunting-but one thing they aren't, mercifully, is "pretty." Depending on your point of view, his stark, emotionally complex psycho-portraits are either misogyny made manifest or woman-worship in the highest. Maybe they're both.

What the Portland native's current show at Mark Woolley accomplishes is the difficult task of maintaining a recognizable style while the underlying vision evolves.

Over a tumbler or two of Knob Creek in his industrial Northwest Portland studio, Thurston spoke about the confluence of Eugène Delacroix's clouds, Wallace Stevens' poetry and the curious, enduring mystique of women.

WW: You only paint women. Why no men?

Joe Thurston: Men are a fuckin' sideshow. Too much testosterone, too many walls, too much of a pissing match. Women models open up quicker; they're more interesting quicker. One thing I offer here in my studio is the opportunity for the models to open up in a way they normally can't about how they feel, how they want to travel, how they don't want to have babies, whatever. And I'm fascinated by women's ability to create things. The womb is magic to me; it's a matrix where meaning forms. So women do magic; the best I can do as a man is to make a painting of it.

If you're so in love with women, why do you paint them without skin on their faces?

There's nothing interesting about your real skin. To truly explore something, any living thing, you have to explore it deeper than its surface level. A model's personality is like a building: I'm interested in the girders, the layers of internal structure. It's as if each muscle I draw, each line, represents an idea.

Do you worry that imagery this radical will hurt your sales?

At the Cascade AIDS Project's auction preview, a guy went up to my painting, and I heard him say, "Well, at least the frame's nice." I realized right there, this isn't the kind of art that sells itself. Someone has to be touched by it.

You're a self-taught artist, right?

Right, I didn't go to art school. I learned out of artist's dumpsters, looked inside them to see how they made their work archival. When I was 21-I'm 35 now-I went out to Pendleton, and Jim Lavadour taught me about oil paint. He looked through my portfolio and said, "In eight or 10 years, approach a dealer." What he really meant was, "Quit, you suck." And I did suck. I was this young kid with long, curly hair-I looked like an Irish terrorist from Limerick. In 1997, I got this studio, and I've been at it ever since.

In the new work, you contextualize the models more; you've given them backgrounds, archways, rolling hills....

Well, I'd been reading Wallace Stevens' The Necessary Angel, where he says, "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real." It made me think about the women in my pictures. They'd become iconic-how could I make them real again? I wanted to bring them into the world, give them some play. So I got out of the box of this studio and did a lot of walking-Mount Tabor, Laurelhurst Park-went kayaking at Sauvie Island, and really looked around. Then I printed out images from the Internet of paintings by Delacroix and Caravaggio. I looked at Delacroix's clouds and stole them, stole the position of his models, put them in a new context, and just extrapolated forever.

I like the new painting with the girl with the pigtails, in front of the clouds, looking totally blissed out.

So many people look at her and think, "She's stoned, she's got this whole Burning Man thing going on!" But look at her: She's a Renaissance Madonna. She's not stoned, she's stoned on Jesus!

Do your spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, impact your art in any way?

Not having any set spiritual views leaves me pretty open to whatever walks through the door.

How about intellectually? What are you interested in these days?

I'm not. I'm more interested in interpersonal relationships: the information you get from somebody. I'm on hiatus from intellectual things.

Mark Woolley Gallery, 120 NW 9th Ave., Suite 210, 224-5475. Closes May 28.