Art after, and during, the fires : Longtime local artist Nicole Strasburg returns to the main gallery of Sullivan Goss with impressive new paintings
By Josef Woodard, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
COURTESY PHOTOS
August 21, 2009 11:06 AM

'NICOLE STRASBURG, AIR EARTH FIRE WATER'
When: through Nov. 1
Where: Sullivan Goss - An American Gallery, 7 E. Anapamu St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily
Information: 730-1460, www.sullivangoss.com/home

Given that Nicole Strasburg has, for many years, been one of the more intriguing landscape artists with an eye on - and roots in - Santa Barbara, it makes poetic sense that she would be among the first and strongest artists to make a direct response to life in the "year round fire season." After three fires in the Santa Barbara area in a year, and yet another recent blaze, the La Brea Fire, the ever-present threat and reality of fire in these parts is more pressing than ever before.

In some of her new paintings, Strasburg takes an unflinching but also carefully visualized look at the phenomenon and ambience of fire zones and fire consciousness.

Fire, and the danger and regenerative results thereof, becomes a part of the landscape, in other words, and a part of the collective mentality of life in Santa Barbara.

Beyond the unique presence of art about flames, though, for her third exhibition in the main gallery of Sullivan Goss, Strasburg goes literally elemental. This show, called "Air Earth Fire Water," delivers precisely what the title promises, but through the aesthetic filter of the artist's discerning eye and distinctive, dry stylistic voice.

Whereas her earlier shows in Sullivan Goss' high-ceilinged gallery found her painting to scale, stretching her scale to epic proportions, the new work scales back to dimensions akin to her earlier work. Apart from the large-ish paintings of kelp, depicted with the artist's skill for semi-abstractionist visual interpretation, the paintings are more manageable in scale.

She has also ventured more deeply into an exploration of the power of multiples. In addition to the singular eloquence of paintings such as "Island Hop," with its brittle luster, Strasburg also calls on the contrast and sequential aspect of the diptych. Wavy amber grasses undulate across panels in "Island Hike," waves and mottled colors create a sudsy panache over three panels in the triptych "Surf," and the crisp, barren lucidity of "Badwater, Death Valley" generates a strange beauty amidst the bleakness of unruly clouds and minimalist horizontal land below.

In a sense, the highlight and possibly the leitmotif of this exhibition is a series of 24 small square panels, assembled into a fragmented checkerboard depiction of the elements.

Swaths of sky, coastline, vegetation and, yes, flames in motion, are conjoined and also disconnected in this format, setting up echoes and rhythms of line and texture. The parts make up the whole, even in their discontinuity.

With this latest batch of paintings, Strasburg continues her impressive project of chronicling the natural life and times of Santa Barbara's environs, fire included. Meanwhile, she also makes inquiries into interior landscapes and new ways of seeing and being.

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