Some local artists grow in glacial micro-steps (Brenden Clenaghen and G. Lewis Clevenger come to mind), some in excruciatingly straight lines (Jacqueline Ehlis, Mel Katz), some do not evolve at all (Brigitte Dortmund) and others actually devolve (Michelle Ross, oy veh! ). But once in a while an artist grows in ways no one could possibly have seen coming, making it hard for a critic not to stoop to clichés: "out of left field," "hyperspace jump," "leap into the unknown"…. Joe Thurston's new show at Elizabeth Leach tells us the artist is in terra incognita by virtue of its title, Then, Quite Suddenly, We Were Simply No Longer Anywhere .

Those who know Thurston from his musculature-baring female portraits (long a fixture at the Mark Woolley Gallery) will not know what to make of his current offering with Leach, a virtuosic suite of abstract paintings on carved wooden panels. Making improvisatory splatters, he painstakingly carves each gesture's contours, finishing up after weeks of forearm-wrenching labor by painting the background and foreground in palettes that are often bracing and counterintuitive. Some viewers have drawn comparisons to another local mid-career virtuoso, Tom Cramer, because both paint and both carve. This is as simplistic a comparison as saying David Hockney and Damian Loeb are peas in a pod because both paint figuratively. Cramer and Thurston are both masters, but the former paints landscapes of the mind, the latter landscapes of the body and atmosphere.

The most extraordinary thing about Thurston's current body of work is its unexpected juxtaposition of spontaneous gesture with labor-intensive process. Exuberant yet somber, shallow yet enigmatic, the paintings are unholy unions of American West folk tradition, Abstract Expressionism and pure, iconic pop; of Paul Bunyan, Sam Francis and Roy Lichtenstein stuck together with a wad of Britney Spears' chewing gum. They are winky and dead-serious, cool and hot, they are a Big Idea, and (brace the tree, I'm going out on a limb) they will eventually put Joe Thurston on the international contemporary-art map. Certainly, those familiar with his previous work will miss the overlong, revelatory titles he gave his psychologically revealing portraits: chestnuts like The Things That Establish Her Personality Sometimes Exhaust Other People and She Limits Her Interests in People to People Who Are Interested In Her . By contrast, the titles of the current show seem forced, cheesy and Lawrence Gallery-worthy: Correspondence ; Fact of Substance ; Weight of a Minute ; Path of Duty .... For the love of God, man, either turn off the Yanni CD or pass the barf bags. Quibbles aside, this is the show to see in Portland, in the Northwest and on the West Coast this month.

417 NW 9th Ave., 224-0521. Closes Sept. 1.