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Good Chemistry 

Art Review: Michael Strauss at the Emile A. Gruppe Gallery, Jericho. Through January 17.

Published December 22, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

“Dream House”
  • “Dream House”

Michael Strauss’ watercolors, acrylics and oils fill a warm, paneled section of Jericho’s Emile A. Gruppe Gallery with color. Strauss is a professor at the University of Vermont with a long history as a chemist and a growing résumé as an artist. His exhibition combines works in different media and genres and demonstrates a versatile and evolving style.

At the entrance of the gallery, a wall filled with snowy watercolors catches the eye. In “Jericho Farm,” tawny stubble pokes through a blanket of snow sweeping back to an angular farmhouse in midnight blue. A plume of pale gray smoke floats across an imposing line of deep blue, craggy trees. The palette of the piece — blues, lavenders, grays and browns — simultaneously suggests cold and the low-slung winter sun. Each element leads to the next, drawing the eye over the snowy hills and into the dark trees beyond.

Adjacent to the watercolors is a group of floral still-life oil paintings. “Red Flower in a Glass Jar” stands out with its creamy oranges and red. A crimson poppy with papery petals leans heavily over the edge of a glass while other flowers jostle behind, their edges slightly blurred against the painting’s background. Despite its adherence to conventions of the classic still-life genre, the painting looks fresh and lively.

In an adjoining section, bright, primary-colored works point to the influence of the California colorists — Strauss originally hails from that state. “North End Spring Snow” shows the dueling influences of the Golden and Green Mountain states; flat blocks of color give way to painterly snow swishing down an alleyway. Strauss seems enamored of color and aware of its temperatures. In this section, he tunes the Vermont scenes up in California brightness and down in degrees Fahrenheit. The effect is a kind of jubilant precision that reflects Strauss’ general approach.

Landscapes nestle between the other genre groups, with an offbeat and luminous palette of lime green and paprika orange. A pair of Strauss’ rural Vermont landscapes use saturated color to draw the viewer into the scene. Red grasses take the foreground, giving way to orange fields that stretch back to periwinkle mountains perched over white farmhouses. The movement from warm to cool colors is also a progression from foreground to background.

Strauss’ landscapes are not always so cheery. In “Cheesefactory Road,” fiery orange trees cast long shadows over a chartreuse meadow, creating a sense of fleeting drama that borders on the ominous. The moody work has an otherworldly feel.

The works in the show span an impressive range of genres and media, though with various degrees of success. At his best, Strauss creates with gusto, skill and a keen eye. These works suggest his experimentation in the studio might someday rival his triumphs in the laboratory.

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Amy Rahn


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