Lost (and Found) in the Details: Landscapes of Andrea Sulzer

Story posted June 12, 2008

Summer is typically the season when galleries throughout the state celebrate the Maine landscape. But don't expect to see the typical lighthouse fare at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

This summer's exhibition, "Andrea Sulzer: After Nature," on view June 19-August 27, 2008, references dizzyingly complex landscapes that are at once familiar and tantalizingly interior. It is the featured exhibition in the Museum's annual summer series exploring unconventional responses to the Maine landscape.

Andrea Sulzer
Sulzer in her studio overlooking the Androscoggin River.

The Brunswick-based artist's works on paper suggest a naturalist's lovingly observed landscape without tethering it to clearly recognizable landmarks. Sulzer uses graphite and ink to create detailed textures that suggest patterns viewed from ocean floor or aerial map. It's an engaging tension of scope and perspective.

"My work is influenced by how nature operates, about the mechanisms at work," says the artist, looking out over the river from her studio in the Androscoggin Mill. "Things like repetition and pattern are important, but it's almost a search for a narrative element. There are fragments of so many things. Fragments of experience, shards of daily life, memories."

Exhibition curator Katy Kline, director of the Museum of Art, observes that Sulzer's drawings and prints draw the viewer in "for the sheer pleasure of savoring an endlessly inventive myriad of different marks—pods, cracks, spikes, needles, hairs, spongy blisters ... Viewer expectations can suddenly be upended when, within an abstract field expanse, one stumbles upon the apparition of a human figure."

Sulzer's personal narrative is as textured and surprising as her work. The artist earned an undergraduate degree in French and master's degrees in forest biology, education, and fine arts. She has worked as an instructor of English as a second language, a scientific illustrator—and was a biology lab assistant at Bowdoin College in the 1990s, before deciding to pursue drawing full-time.

Urchin etching
Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis (sea urchin), 2002, illustration from Life Between the Tides (Tilbury House, 2003).

"Through my younger years, it was a search for what fit," says Sulzer. "Different things fit at different times, but nothing ever fit completely until I began drawing."

Some of the earliest works in the exhibition display Sulzer's prowess as an illustrator, with pieces drawn from direct observation - a drypoint of a bird's nest, ink drawings of densely tangled seaweed or a sea urchin.

The work began to take on a more abstract, private meaning in 2002, when Sulzer began a series of more than 70 graphite drawings. These small drawings, done daily, "became a kind of diary of the artist's inner life," writes Kline in the exhibition catalog. "Once again she built intricate, dense tangles, lines laid down rapidly that pulsate with barely contained vitality."

Spillway, Detail
Detail from spillway, 2006, ink on paper, 101 X 101 inches. Photo Luc Demers.

While Sulzer has continued to be fascinated by finely wrought marks, the works she is now creating are on a scale that even she finds challenging. Spillway, arguably the exhibition's centerpiece, is a hugely dramatic ink drawing that measures 101 X 101 inches. What at first glance appears to be a swirling, joyous chaos, reveals itself in places to be phalanxes of soldiers with bayonets drawn.

spillway fine detail
A fine detail from spillway, 2006, ink on paper, 101 X 101 inches.

"The big pieces are very physical," says Sulzer. "A lot of times I'm working on the table, sitting in the middle of the pictures. If you look, you start to see figures. There's an upside-down face. There are hands. Gems. I don't know where it's going. I have ideas, but a lot of times I just lose myself in the mark-making and the next step suggests itself."

While Sulzer has garnered widespread acclaim and support for her work—including a 2001 residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture; an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Maine Arts Commission; and a piece included in a group show at the highly prestigious Drawing Center in New York City—the Bowdoin College Museum of Art exhibition is Sulzer's first solo museum show.

Kline first encountered Sulzer's work at an exhibition at ICON Contemporary Art, which represents Sulzer. "I was struck by its originality and conviction," observes Kline. "Her work is so tough and strong, even though each mark is tender. The pieces keep you engaged for a long time. It's a visual delight."

"This is the first time that someone else is curating a show for me, and I am excited and interested to see how Katy has put it together," says Sulzer. "I feel I have been so fortunate."

Andrea in studio
Sulzer in her Brunswick, Maine, studio.

"More than anything, she adds, she hopes her drawings will "feel generous, feel like an experience. I think there is this desire in me to envelope the viewer. I want my work to feel like something that renews itself, that it feels familiar and new at the same time. That's when I know something is 'successful,' when I feel it's done. When I have the feeling, this has always existed."

An opening reception for the exhibition will be held in the Museum's Zuckert Seminar Room from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Thursday, June 19. It is free and open to the public. For more information, call 207-725-3275.

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