Don't let the sweet pastels in "Flourish" lull you into thinking the show is just a girlish bonbon. Girl vibes pulse through the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 2 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, but they're cross-checked by edgy undercurrents of surrealism, sexual ambiguity and waifish satire. While there's enough pink on the walls -- also coral, tangerine, rose, mulberry and lemon -- to upholster a boudoir, it would not be the Queen Mum's lounge but more of a joint where Lady Gaga could hang out with Hello Kitty.

And to further muddle the message, two of the four artists are guys. Their appropriation of conventionally feminine colors and imagery -- flowers, bows -- further twists the gender mix.

What all four have in common is meticulous drawing styles and abundant illustrational talent. Working with colored pencil, oil pastel, watercolor and other drawing media, they employ graphic devices (ornamental patterns, flattened imagery, linear designs, lots of white space) to narrative effect. Their drawings read like "pictures," in that they hint at stories, relationships or emotional states.

Organized by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an independent curatorial department housed at the museum, the show features work by Minnesota residents.

Down-home dreams

A gentle note of domesticity floats through the large drawings of Erika Olson Gross with their quilt patterns, toys and North Woods imagery. She deftly combines realistic pencil sketches with colorful geometric designs.

In "Dream Quilt," the heads of her two young sons appear, snuggled in sleep, at the apex of an ornamental frieze of triangles arranged in a quilt-like pattern. Simplified boats decorate another panel. Elsewhere, strings of cut-out snowflakes and teardrops hover above a wise-looking teddy bear, smiling birdhouses soar above Chinese-style waves and a circle of Scandinavian embroidery floats over a conifered shoreline. By reducing everything to its essence, her drawings gain sophistication through simplicity.

Floral frisson

Joe Sinness has an amazing way with colored pencils, achieving trompe l'oeil effects that suggest gleaming metal, transparent glass, fresh flowers, painted porcelain, mirrored reflections, and images printed on glossy paper. Flowers are the unifying element in each still life, providing textured bowers for complicated images that appear to be reflected in a glass bubble (Barbra Streisand), mirror (a fawn figurine), glass tumbler (a gray-haired woman), bracelet (pink flamingo) and other shiny surfaces.

Some of the pairings seem designed just to showcase Sinness' remarkable skills, but a few introduce suggestive socio-sexual themes. Among the latter, "If Only," is strikingly clever: below a bouquet of luxurious parrot tulips Sinness reproduces part of a famous and once controversial Thomas Eakins swimming scene featuring half-dozen naked men. Reflected in an overturned glass, the 19th-century nudes seem preserved like biological specimen or an au naturel mirage of masculine bonding. Another sketch ironically pairs a voluptuous but cracked vase with an AARP magazine featuring overripe Dolly Parton as its come-hither cover girl.

Worried waifs

Worried waifs have their moment in the show's second gallery shared by Jennifer Davis and Terrence Payne. Davis has attracted a loyal local following with her charming illustrations of winsome animals (dogs, sheep) and sweetly surrealistic critters (sloth, balding green alien) all dressed up and doing human things (twiddling their fingers, riding bikes). Endlessly inventive and gently strange, her characters are simultaneously unsettling and endlessly appealing. With tiny eyes and zipper mouths, they bumble haplessly about, falling into dreamy reveries or tumbling into ponds. Davis' endlessly fertile imagination is well served by her linear style and pale palette.

Girls in trouble

By contrast, Payne favors bold colors and pop wallpaper backgrounds for his galaxy of aggrieved gals. At roughly 4 feet square, each of his drawings features a woman in self-inflicted comic distress. The titles derive from phrases scrawled onto the drawings like errant thought bubbles.

"Its Not so Much for My Safety as It Is Yours," for example, depicts a young woman with a peeved expression and pink hair whose mouth is muzzled and arms pinned by thick black straps. Another wearing a snarling bear hat with antlers appears to be thinking "If My Charms Don't Work Then My Hat Ought To." The torso and head of a third gal is swaddled in fabric letters; it's title is "Maybe Next Time You Can Remember to Leave Me a Breathe Hole." Despite their misogynistic overtones, Payne's drawings don't seem mean-spirited. Rather they suggest the frustrated bemusement of a guy still trying to figure out whether girls are made of sugar and spice, or something else entirely. • 612-673-4431