Santa Barbara News-Press
Friday, February 24, 2006

Where sand, sea and sky meet

February 24, 2006 12:00 AM

The name Nicole Strasburg will have a familiar ring for anyone in touch with the local gallery scene over the last many years. Strasburg has shown her distinctive take on landscape painting in group shows around the area and in her intimate, former studio-gallery on Arlington Avenue.

Yet there's a kind of freshness and a disarming, quiet grandeur to her show now in the main gallery of Sullivan Goss. The bold impression has to do with the quality and scale of the work and the understated drama of its presentation in this generous space.

But it also has to do with the fact that the artist is on a new kind of career roll. Since last showing two years ago in the smaller back gallery at Sullivan Goss, Strasburg has branched out professionally. She has secured gallery representation around the country and her work has piqued the interest of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art.

The new local exhibition, cleverly titled "40+40@40," officially commemorates her 40th birthday, featuring 40 examples of her signature oil on birch wood painting and 40 smaller oil on paper pieces. Unofficially, the show could commemorate her upward motion in art circles.

Strasburg deserves the growing attention. While admittedly part of the cult of landscape art in the area, the artist has developed a unique and personalized approach which sets her apart from more conventional keepers of the plein air painting flame.

She paints on birch wood and sands down multiple layers of paint, achieving a dry, flat surface quality and deflecting expressive excess. In combination with a subtle and sometimes semi-abstracting eye for composition, her landscape paintings -- mostly seascapes here, blending elements of sand, sea and sky -- can marshal refreshing qualities of restraint and enigma.

Working on a small scale is nothing new for Strasburg, who has previously learned how to deal with the challenge of downsized visual thinking. Her many oil on paper pieces on view here fulfill that expectation. But she has also pushed outward into much larger paintings than before, and with surprising results. Larger doesn't necessarily mean louder or busier: Sometimes she exerts yet more control in dealing with expanded scale, adding to the art's focused allure.

The largest painting in the gallery, "Outlet," impresses with subtlety. With this ètude in melting hues of blue and green, Strasburg "grounds" her painting with thin bands of sea and sky across the very top of an image which mostly depicts the innate abstract, iridescent patchwork of shimmering wet sand. As with many of the works in the show, sand meets sea meets sky, sometimes in blurry relationships between those discrete elements.

In many of Strasburg's paintings, elements of tension and visual intrigue push the imagery beyond strict allegiance to the natural subjects before her. Golden waves of grass sweep across the picture plane and convey the force of wind in "Grass and Sea," with a vague hint of ocean in the upper corner. "Pire, Montana de Oro" cryptically views sea stones amidst foamy wave action, a painting as much about energy as imagery.

Diagonal striations in the rock above the beach in "Jalama Coast" give that painting its artistic logic, and cloudscapes rule in the vertically pitched "Summer Sky." Strasburg leans more toward realism with "Gaviota Pier," a horizontally pitched painting in which the twisting turns of water through the sand contrast the clean geometry of the pier structure.

Another deceptively traditional composition, "Evening Sky," would be the stuff of landscape painting fundamentals -- a tidy scene with a bridge and water reflecting clouds and vegetation. But Strasburg deviates from the norm, and lends mystery through the use of her muted palette and thin wash of carefully sanded-down paint surface.

Seeing the results of Strasburg's fairly cool and disciplined eye, painting local beaches which have been endlessly painted in more lavish and realistic terms, one sees the landscape art process anew. Her style seems somehow less surprising in the triptych "Ireland Suite." Again, we find a fusion of land and sea in stark, interwoven patterns, but in a part of the world far removed from the kitsch overlay of Southern California beaches.

Maybe the landscape art scene needs artists like Strasburg to keep things fresh, honest and unpredictable. An artist's relationship with a recurring subject should, after all, be a dynamic and changing one. At the ripe, medium age of 40, she has that slippery part of the task in hand and in mind. Stay tuned for further developments.