'You're Swell' - Nicole Strasburg | Credit: Courtesy

Making my way in to see Nicole Strasburg’s new Sullivan Goss exhibition Surfacing, diverse enticements were there to behold in this spatially generous, three-gallery-deep art space. This summer’s triple play of shows includes Holli Harmon’s intriguingly multifaceted To Feast on Clouds and the seasonal group show spritzer dubbed Summer Fling in the large middle space, including colorful, eye-buzzing works by Penelope Gottlieb, Robert Townsend, and one of Hank Pitcher’s fetching surfboard “portraits.”

‘Water Lines’ – Nicole Strasburg | Credit: Courtesy

By association, Strasburg’s conceptually elastic variations on seascape paintings should also qualify as summery fare. And yet these seaside scenarios, taken individually and as a variegated and integrated ensemble, can take on introspective and artistically adventurous sub-turns, far from the realm of idle beachgoer’s escapism.

It has been fascinating to observe veteran outdoors/plein air/seascape painter Strasburg’s growth and gradual evolution over the years. Whereas many landscape and seascape artists might settle into a cozy — and sometimes lucrative — groove, Strasburg seems the more restlessly questioning sort, finding new expressive avenues without ever leaving the foundation of her nature-oriented iconography.

As an instructive introduction to the exhibition, which extends and deepens the interests explored during the COVID lockdown and publicly unveiled in her 2021 exhibition Sea Change, a wall facing the entrance to the back gallery belongs to the triptych “Pulchra Mysterium (Beautiful Mystery).” Here, layers of deep colors, extracted from natural, seaside, and twilight sources seen elsewhere in the show, have turned inward and abstract, transforming into a transcendental spectral matrix.

Walk into the gallery proper to find the fuller range of ideas and variations on her sea theme — and “change” theme — via a series of paintings that are diverse in scale and intention. Following up on past strategies, Strasburg includes square-formatted multiples, with 14-inch square paintings nestled into a larger suite of 16 images, following a relatively “straight” approach to seascape representations, with subtle twists.

One of the most intriguing images here touches on her increasing interest in blending nature with geometric and abstract order: “Water Lines” balances the subjects implied in the title, with linear grids in the composition’s bottom half cryptically contrasting the clouded sea/sky above. In a sense, this and paintings such as the small “A Bit of Perspective” and the tall “Swash Bar” echo a stylistic trajectory reminiscent of Richard Diebenkorn’s slide into his signature “Ocean Park” abstractionism, with nature and geometry in the margins.

Nocturnal subjects make their way into the mix, including the almost psychedelic fantasia of “Celestial Sea,” with tidy horizontal bands of color offset by dramatic, screaming yellow arabesques of cloud-play. From a more realistic and environmentalist angle, the night skyscape of “Twinkle Twinkle” has as its twin twinkle factors faint stars above and, as sentry marching across the pictorial mid-section, a convoy of twinkly oil rigs on the horizon, a reminder of eco-dread.

And from a different attitude of light and color entirely comes “Channel Surf,” a lovely view of gentle waves/coastline, but with a visual scheme almost over-exposed and washed out — and blissed out?

Maybe Strasburg’s Surfacing collection is more summery than initial impressions suggest. Consider it a perspective from a summer of cautious contentment and the meditative hum of inquiry. —Josef Woodard

Nicole Strasburg: Surfacing is on view at Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery (11 E. Anapamu St.) through September 25. See sullivangoss.com.


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