In the galleries: Suzanne Stryk
The Washington Post,
January 15, 2016
To make the 26 multilayered assemblages in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Suzanne Stryk roved from the urbanized D.C. suburbs to the state’s rural southwestern edge (where she lives). Her traveling companion? Thomas Jefferson, whose 1785 book of the same title inspired the Athenaeum show.
Although they utilize Mylar and Google Earth, these 3-D collages do have an 18th-century feel. They suggest curiosity cabinets and the childhood of natural science, when men boyishly collected bones, leaves, feathers and the like. Stryk doesn’t feign innocence of contemporary knowledge, though. Her “How the Past Returns” features a bay-shaped black blot and text from a booklet titled “Climate Change and the Chesapeake Bay.”
The pieces are built atop topographical maps and include animal specimens — more often drawn than actual — and portraits of Jefferson, adapted from ones by Raphaelle or Rembrandt Peale. “Maroon (Swamp Diary)” features text about the Great Dismal Swamp from George Washington’s diary and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Dred,” a novel in which escaped slaves hide in the bog.
Layered with images and information, these pieces reward close inspection. They’re part Jefferson, part real-world hypertext documents.
Interpretation: Connections Between Past and Present
When fine artist Suzanne Stryk learned she had received a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts to create her own artistic interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, she was both excited and daunted: “What have I gotten myself into?” she wondered. “Virginia is so biologically and culturally rich. And how audacious to use Jefferson’s book for my series!”
But then she remembered Jefferson’s own words when he was asked to revise his book decades after writing the original. “The work itself is nothing more than the measure of a shadow, never stationary, but lengthening as the sun advances, and to be taken anew from hour to hour,” he wrote. “It must remain, therefore, for some other hand to sketch its appearance at another epoch.” Suzanne considered his use of the word “sketch” as a prophecy, she says, and with that, she dove in.
Four years after receiving the grant, Suzanne’s brilliant series of 26 assemblages Notes on the State of Virginia is touring the Commonwealth, much as she did during its creation. “Basically all I knew was that I was going to do a series of mixed media works on topographic maps,” she says. “I knew I would visit each site, draw there a lot, collect, make notes and just absorb – just be open to all the different environmental and historical things I would experience, people I would meet, animals I would observe – and from that I would create a piece.” Each image in the series offers viewers the full range of sensory experiences, creating the sense that they have visited the sites themselves.
The series is irresistibly tactile. With actual ferns, plants, leaves, insects, ground stone, coal, clay and other samples from each site incorporated into the pieces, it’s like experiencing the sites firsthand – with the added benefit of viewing a masterful artistic composition.
The series retains the historical factor, yet at the same time, Suzanne brings it very much into the 21st century. “Bridge,” her take on Southwestern Virginia’s Natural Bridge, demonstrates the breadth and scope of this artist’s vision and tells a very intricate story while still allowing for the viewer’s own interpretation. The foundation for this piece and for 13 others in the series is a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map – something Suzanne has always found artistically enticing. Using ground stone collected from the bridge itself, she made mineral-based watercolor, which she painted onto clear Mylar.
Suzanne’s depiction of Natural Bridge with the genomic sequences of a swallow suggests the connections between all living things. “We’re all connected by similar chemicals in our genes” says Suzanne. “We’re all made of the same stuff. The title of the piece, ‘Bridge,’ implies this and the link between past and present.”
Traveling by car, foot, and even kayak, Suzanne visited Virginia’s Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge and Appalachian Plateau regions. After each trip, she would return to her studio in Bristol to begin construction of the pieces, relying on samples, drawings, notes and the visceral experiences fresh in her mind.
Suzanne is often asked if she studied science, art, or both. “I wanted to be an artist or a field biologist,” she says. “These two interests have been playing tug-of-war all my life.” Art eventually won out, and Suzanne graduated with a degree in art history and painting. “Art suits my need to interpret the natural world, to integrate science and spirit, fact with imagination. So I think I’m happiest as an artist, yet I constantly flirt with science,” she says. “I wrote all my research papers in college on how art represents nature throughout the ages and in many different cultures.”
She worked as a scientific illustrator for a bit but says “it didn’t involve enough interpretation for me to be totally satisfied with it,” so she devoted her life to fine art. She is greatly inspired by Russian icons and has loosely translated them into many of her designs.
Parts of the Virginia exhibit are interactive, and Suzanne considers it egalitarian. “It’s not just for the art world, it’s for everyone. I’d really like people to feel welcomed and involved . . . I’d like to contribute to people’s ability to integrate their experience. What is science, art, history and travel if not combined with personal reflection? And why do we separate these subjects anyway? To me, real learning is not the same as memorizing facts – it’s integrating facts into full and rich experiences.”
The Collector’s Plan: Recent Work by Suzanne Stryk
February 6 - 29, 2004
Leah Stoddard, Director Second Street Gallery, Charlottesville, VA
Nothing for Stryk goes unnoticed. For decades she has recorded her experiences with nature in sketchbooks that are as much journals of her walks around her home in Bristol, Virginia, as they are ornithological documentations of a certain species of bird lying dead, or a feather found.
Minute details trigger an urge to record, and often later become part of a painting. For the last four years the artist has become absorbed with bird imagery where parts (feathers, eggs, nests) become metaphoric stand-ins for bird and echoes of human trappings. Like the enigmatic Rosetta Stone, Stryk’s beautiful mixed media panels invite close investigation, beckoning decipherment of a personal iconography.
Stryk insists we are all collectors in some way, that we share an impulse to order and control the natural world. The artist demonstrates her collector persona in her meticulously painted and structured compositions: in the antenna of a beetle or the shift of hues and patterns from egg to egg. She is as much a sculptor as a painter, teasing fibers from a bird’s nest to render them tactile or scratching notations into her gesso that are part science, part poetry, and all obsession. Pairing text and image, the viewer enters an imaginary dialogue, piecing through the many visual tropes whose humble beginnings may have been a walk in the woods one late afternoon.On the luminous stage of these works,
On the luminous stage of these works, Stryk paints with a skill of calm control. Just as she organizes the organic, so too do we separate ourselves from the disorder of the natural world in our architecture, our automobiles, our central heating, our clothing. Yet, in Stryk’s mind, the division is false: Safely protected in our homes, she describes, we pride ourselves in overcoming the hazards of wildness, yet deep in the spiraling chains of every cell in our bodies is wildness itself. The language Stryk reveals to us is not a separate voice but our own.
Object Lessons: A Dialogue Between Art and Science
June 8, 2003
The fossil and feathers and nest depicted in Suzanne Stryk’s “The Collector’s Question” represent the sort of personal shrines that collector’s create. They sometimes put their collections into orderly ranks, as Stryk does with birds’ eggs in one painting (and as Todd Murphy did for real recently in a work at Lowe Gallery).
Just as often, they put unusual pieces next to one another.Stryk’s show at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, “The Collector’s Confession,” suggests the dialogue between art and science that goes on in the mind of most collectors of natural objects. The collector may go for organized completeness, but the original impulse has something to do with the beauty of single things, whether feathers, nests, or fossils. What they have to do with one another sometimes comes later.
Stryk’s show at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, “The Collector’s Confession,” suggests the dialogue between art and science that goes on in the mind of most collectors of natural objects. The collector may go for organized completeness, but the original impulse has something to do with the beauty of single things, whether feathers, nests, or fossils. What they have to do with one another sometimes comes later.
But for most collectors, that curiosity eventually comes. The Fernbank Museum is full of collections presented as science but meant to arouse curiosity and, just maybe, aesthetic wonder. Though Stryk didn’t create these paintings for the museum, they’re an effective commentary on the idea that knowledge often begins with the experience of beauty.
Natural Wonders: Stryk’s Jeweled Insights
On a shelf in my room at my father’s house, a small corked jar holds shreds of grey-green moss, a tiny mouse bone, a splintery piece of worm-eaten wood, and a few smooth pebbles. It was a gift from my friend Leesie to remind me of the walks we used to take as teenagers, when we would examine the minutiae of our lives as well as stray bits of natural detritus.
Painter Suzanne Stryk would probably smile at this attempt to lasso a moment. In her exhibition “The Collector’s Plan,” on view at Second Street Gallery, Stryk explores the human impulse to order and organize the natural world, to detect an underlying design, to contain and master time, birth, death, in a futile but irresistible urge to make the unknowable knowable.
Grappling with such an enormous theme could easily get heavy-handed, but Stryk keeps things light—literally. By using a vocabulary of small things—eggs, feathers, insects, even DNA—she creates a visual conversations that is both intriguing and amusing.
Many of the 23 acrylic and mixed media on wood panels venture beyond the limits of two dimensions. Sculptural bird’s nests or chaotically twining vines provide a reality that overrides precisely rendered yet flat objects, whether mottled eggs or iridescent beetles, that have been compartmentalized and identified. Closer examination, however, often reveals scientific notations ciphered into the surface of the reliefs.
Other paintings work in reverse, with notebooks physically imposed upon nature, Stryk having plastered them, spiral bindings and all, into the image. For the Virginia-based artist, it’s never a matter of either/or; it’s always both/and.
Using earthy ochre and a rich black that deliciously pulls objects into its abyss, as well as jewel-like colors for feathers and eggs, Stryk imbues her studies with an inviting sensuality.
In the 38 x 35-inch “Blueprint,” a textured band of wild-woven ochre nests runs through the center of the painting. Above, small birds perch discretely in the blue-green rooms of an architectural floor plan (one of Stryk’s favorite organizing motifs), while below, inchoate black and reddish-brown winged shapes morph into and out of each other like crows flying against a twilight October sky.
“The Collector’s Plan” also displays Stryk’s personal sketchbooks, in which she exquisitely records what she finds on her own walks. Like the egg at the center of the 38″ x 36″ “The Collector’s Secret,” these are at the source of Stryk’s swirling fine-feathered imagining.
Noticing their surroundings is what many artists do so well; how they express it often reveals more than the subject. Recent shows by Nashville’s Sylvia Hyman and Suzanne Stryk (Cumberland Gallery April 26 – May 24, 2003) and Jean Hess (TAC gallery) are cases in point… [section about Hyman and Hess omitted]
A sense of controlled order has long infused Suzanne Stryk’s paintings and drawings of insects and birds on solid dark grounds, which feel a bit like butterflies pinned to a board. Although the work raises questions about species diversity and extinction, the artist remains a mute, studious observer. Many of this show’s acrylic paintings on wood and paper seemed journal-like, covered with notes and sketches and divided into sections that could accommodate different kinds of information. But Stryk also engages in fanciful still-life constructions—making ladders out of feathers and posing marionette-like dancing crabs on strings. These gently startling manipulations recall the subdued surrealism of Max Ernst frottages (rubbings from nature) and Joseph Cornell’s birdcage constructions.
A recent residency in Port Townsend, Washington has supplied Stryk with a new range of natural found objects. The confluence of inspiration and imagination has led to her most successful paintings to date: “Explorer’s Last Wish” (2002), an image of flying crabs and a suspended clam shell; “Still Life with Holdfasts” (2002), a monumental Stonehenge of creature-like plants against a long horizon; and “Balancing Act,” a scene of seashell totem poles that also encompasses drawing of the totem poles. While this ambitious work promises to pull Stryk away from the strictures of objective recording, a summer exhibition at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History will pull her into the close orbit of a more literal-minded audience.
May 21, 2000
Talking with Suzanne Stryk at Blue Spiral 1 during the May Downtown Gallery Stroll was interesting in part because the subject of art never came up. We conversed about literature, about nature, about the easy chair she had set up in anticipation of a visit by her father-in-law, the accomplished poet Lucien Stryk.
I missed an opportunity to learn more about her art directly, an art which is among the most exciting ever shown in Asheville. Instead, I learned something about the breadth of sympathy from which Stryk’s art rises, her eclectic enthusiasm, her delight, amounting nearly to lust, for the things of the world, which allows those things to manifest in her work such precise and evocative presence.
Though she has passed through insect, serpent and antelope stages, Stryk’s subjects in the present show are birds for the most part. The presentation is metonymic, which is to say that the birds are represented at once by their own images and by things that appertain to them, by eggs and feathers, in one case, most beautifully, by the forest they may inhabit.
The rendering goes beyond flawless. The eggs gleam with strata of glazes. Details of the feathers are sometimes deliberately out of focus, as though they were fluttering in the wind, or still attached to a living bird. Sometimes the pieces feel like Etruscan tomb paintings, sometimes like pages from the notebook of a Victorian gentleman naturalist, stained and much folded, scrawled with notes, enriched with text, the birds displayed as though initially aids to memory. Stryk said in an interview given in February at the Spartanburg County Museum of Art, “I recall struggling to identify a little greenish-yellow bird—was it a goldfinch, a warbler or a vireo? Funny now that it gave me so much trouble. And while a name in itself doesn’t mean much, the importance was that learning names was a way of noticing subtle distinctions and developing an awareness of other creatures’ existence. From that time on I no longer felt that people were the center of the universe.”
Whatever Stryk is painting is the center of the universe. The painstaking precision and inventiveness of her technique is at the service of her birds in a way that most contemporary artists have neither the modesty nor the skill to emulate.