Bananas decay so indiscreetly. At every stage of their too-brief lives on the kitchen counter, their phallic forms betray such palpable yearning for love and consummation. In the green flush of youth, they flaunt firm flesh that is too tart and acidic to give much pleasure. By the time they've ripened into maturity their sunny skins boast of honeyed succulence, ambrosial but all too fleeting. And then, suddenly, dark freckles of age blossom on once taut flanks. Skins shrivel and blacken; the trash heap beckons.

Bananas are much on the mind of St. Paul painter Nancy Robinson, who uses their life cycle as a wryly delicious metaphor for all things sexual in her new paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Called "Sin and Guilt," the show explores the myriad dilemmas and demands of contemporary womanhood, what she calls "the fine line between genius and madness, dating and stalking, passion and perversion, pleasure and pain, creation and destruction, beauty and ugliness."

In an inspired pairing, the show in the adjacent gallery is "Holy Land," featuring staged photos by Sara Belleau, who recasts Judeo-Christian and Islamic narratives with contemporary people in Midwestern locations. That sounds potentially hokey and awkward, but the photos are surprisingly persuasive and compelling, their effectiveness enhanced by a little field of real wheat that Belleau has improbably installed in the middle of the gallery. Organized by the artist-curated Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, both shows end May 31.

Sin and guilt

In most of her 13 meticulously conceived paintings, Robinson casts herself in roles from classical mythology or art history. She variously poses as Frida Kahlo, Leonardo Da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine" and the famous School of Fontainebleau image of two nudes in a bathtub. Her adaptations reflect the sexual ambiguity and frustrations of modern life, especially for ambitious and independent women who too often find themselves pursued by callow, heartless clods (caricatured here as Pinocchios). She poses as both of the Fontainebleau nudes, for example, but portrays them as the original First Couple, Eve and Adam, he a lightly bearded dead ringer for Bob Marley offering her a banana and a sly nipple tweak.

Clad in a furry bathing suit and banana-heels, Robinson's "Diana the Huntress" stands on a tiny island (think of Princess Diana's burial site) snaring little boy-toys in butterfly nets. In her monumental 5-foot-tall "Yellow Self-Portrait," Robinson poses like a surreal Paul Delvaux vixen at the edge of a storm-tossed sea in which leaping fish fail to catch the hearts cast by three sulky cupids. Pointing to her elegant gown of rotting banana peels, a comical bluebird-of-happiness seems to suggest that for all her magnificence, this is a Last Call for the heroine. Every Botoxed babe can empathize.

Holy Land

Staged photos have enjoyed a remarkable comeback in the 30 years since Cindy Sherman's faux film stills began drawing attention to a long-forgotten mode of picture-making. Belleau follows suit with age-old themes drawn from ancient religious texts that she distills into elaborately staged and photographed scenes. She suggests the concept of "Baptism," for instance, by posing an infant in a fern glade beneath a ladle dripping honey. "Job," covered in boils, kneels in a field clutching a tiny barn symbolizing both his trials and contemporary economic turmoil in the American Midwest. Goliath, the giant against which the biblical David raised his slingshot, has been transformed into a line of distant oil rigs. The wandering "Prodigal Son" does not find a feast waiting when he return home, but unearths a chest of memories and family treasures, an apt metaphor for analysis perhaps.

Images of this sort always walk a fine line between art and illustration, insight and insult, moving testimony and mawkish bathos. After a decade or so, Belleau's photos may very well seem cheesy and moralizing, but for now their dramas read true.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431