We begin in black. The first lines of a new piece are black on the artist's sketchpad, and in black clusters they gather. They pull together the defining shapes called "positive space." Then around this literal black, pencil-lead, charcoal-tip, there's the metaphoric. An artwork's essential images, the things it's a picture of, are surrounded by darkness in the figurative sense-by "negative space." A coat of primer, a backdrop. Yet this negative may itself harbor glimmerings. What was originally secondary may prompt new forces, new ways of seeing. Given energy enough, imagination enough, an artist might assert and undermine her central impulses within a single high - contrast vision. Black makes, and black unmakes.

Thus the pervading drama of Lori-ann Latremouille. Each piece by this largely untrained twenty-nine-year-old strives to contain multiplicitous countervailing tensions. It's as if she works so swiftly because, if she didn't, the elements would pull apart. Charcoal seems the only tool strong enough to pin down her eruptive mythologies, her feelingful stares and erotic tickles. "I'm most concerned with balance and texture," Latremouille declares. "I'm actually working that out in a physical way."

Physical - like the big cat lurking in "Panther on His Back" One of the most shattering pieces in the current group, "Panther" began as a serene lovers' portrait. "Then," Latremouille explains, "in the negative space emerged other figures, creating anxiety. Grasping and pulling." The color adds to the unease. A particularly fierce green, it occurs in ovals on the characters' jewelry and in triangles ( arrowheads? barbs?) in places supposedly empty. A number of pieces have the same ruling "anxiety": an embrace amid carnivores. Generally the threat tugs diagonally, as in "Watching The Mystery of Picasso" where the tiger - striped Other Woman has her face in the opposite corner from the lovers'.

But the counterpoint is not merely geometrical. In "Watching" for instance the faces too convey a difference - an emotional antipathy. This is accomplished with masterful subtlety, in the width and brilliance of the eyes. For all the brute power of Latremouille's horseheads and African lips, for all the cultural sweep of her angels and Egyptians, she never skimps on the details. Her lovers are nearly always biracial, and their kisses create delicate shadowplay.

Delicacy's also at the heart of less busy works like "Black Woman White Chair" The model presents a cross at the picture's middle, the upright from her playful frown to her pubic hair and the horizontal shoulder to shoulder. This cross is then reiterated in the flower petals on the backing wallpaper (as, indeed, the white circles at petal- center mimic the woman's bright nipples). Negative space once more becomes vital, this time via alertness to the least detail.

A morning's conversation with Latremouille ranges to unexpected places. To her hero, Bob Dylan, especially. She's a songwriter herself, and gigs around Vancouver, B.C. She's had no institutional smoothing since high school, no one to tell her she can't do whatever she wants. Small wonder the visual work resists easy coding. Its fractured crowding suggests the Cubists, its monumental faces Henri Rousseau. But this is a catalogue in which nightmares end in primitive feet and angels pose in transparent robes. It's flat, stark faceoff, and it's layered, fossil-rich sediment. We begin in black - and we go anywhere.

John Domini writes for the New York Times and elsewhere.