Complex Miracles

y Indy Staff, March 9, 2006

40 + 40 @ 40, paintings by Nicole Strasburg. At Sullivan Goss, 7 E. Anapamu St. Shows through March 30.

In certain moments we manage, through the quality of our attention, to transform the simplest of things — our breath, a rock, the sound of water — into complex miracles. While we are in them, such moments seem to be the stuff of which our lives ought to be made. For most of us, such moments are elusive and come less frequently than we might like. What if there were an abundance of such moments waiting for you, and you knew where to find them?

This is the experience of contemplating Nicole Strasburg's 40 + 40 @ 40. Consider, for example, "Island Clouds," one of the simplest compositions. The top two-thirds of the panel are covered with a pattern of gentle blues and whites, the lower third by a tender arch of dappled yellows and ocher. The illusion is never lost. We know this hill and this sky immediately, yet the composition is utterly modern, the landscape having been abstracted by a camera-informed eye. The subject matter, too, which is really the curve of a hill — a curve that the eye loves, even if the mind cannot be convinced of its importance — is influenced by 20th-century photography. The groupings of colors, though, are organic, arranged like lichen across bark. The palette is subtler than we are used to seeing in plein air paintings, the colors of individual strokes varied enough to create a restrained sparkle. And the brushwork itself is completely human; we have the sense that we can follow the hand of the artist as she makes her marks, the gestures both spontaneous and rhythmic. Each of these layers integrates flawlessly with the others to at once enliven and soothe. The breath slows in front of such a painting, but the heart beats faster.

This relaxed complexity is carried throughout, whether in other minimalist works, such as the series of water trickling over sand, or in more elaborately breathtaking compositions, such as the "Ireland Slate" triptych or "Incoming Tide 01" and "02." Considering the show as a whole, one cannot help but notice the artist's low-key versatility and the breadth of her influences. One series of brushstrokes whispers Van Gogh, while another intimates Gauguin. Hokusai and the Arts and Crafts movement are also in evidence, yet none is any more than a murmur in a stream. Standing in the show, surrounded by its delicate, thoughtful beauty, one has the impression of looking out at the world through the eyes of a mystic who once knew her art history well, but who has, in her bliss, entirely forgotten it.

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