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Marian Sullivan's landscape paintings look at nature through a magnifying glass. 

Slices of Life

The grandeur and allure of nature have been the topics of great paintings and literature. Nature is sometimes ordered, rational and subservient; at other times emotional, chaotic and controlling. Humans, in their constant quest to comprehend the physical and subjective world around them, have explored the power of nature in all its facets.

Marian Sullivan's nine paintings/constructions, currently on view at Astra Design, initially may not appear to be meditations on nature and the genre of landscape contemplation. Six of the works are rather small square wood panels, projecting from the wall, and covered in pellucid washes of paint. They are abstract — there is no recognizable imagery — and intimate, just tiny fragments of something larger and more awesome. Despite this abstraction, though, the artist is certainly referencing the landscape painting tradition. The paint is applied in broad strokes, left to right, and some works even leave a bare wood band just below the center, suggesting a horizon line. The colors of brandy, rust, sepia browns and deep blues also allude to nature. They are hazy and mystical, melting imaginary objects into a subtle vortex. Titles such as "Drift," "Vale," "Wander" and "Terrain" reinforce the connection to landscapes.

A significant aspect of these works is that while the mellow tonal qualities evoke melancholy and solitude, the viewer is not completely absorbed into the painting in the manner of a Mark Rothko. This is largely due to the paintings' small size. One seems to hover between dissolving into the work and emphatically standing outside of it. Sullivan is interested in such dichotomies. In her artist's statement, she notes that dualisms such as image and object, observation and process, experience and memory, and presence and absence, pique her curiosity. I would add to this list the interplay between the majestic, sublime qualities of panoramic nature and Sullivan's encapsulated, fractured miniatures that shatter nature's magnitude.

Sullivan is a romantic in denial. She attempts to suppress her emotional response to nature by isolating only a tiny cross-section of the landscape. She dissects and scrutinizes it in much the way the scientist masters and objectifies nature by placing it under the microscope. This suppression is exemplified further in her conscious, articulated interest in formal elements. In the last year, Sullivan's manner of layering paint, gesso and hide glue on wood has evolved into the layering of only wood upon wood. These current works are largely shards of wood hung on the wall. While they do more blatantly introduce a debate on painting verses sculpture, I do not find them as strong. Her earlier paintings are far more interesting in both a critical and aesthetic sense.

Living in Boston, Sullivan continues to embrace her unique take on the tradition of landscape painting that the Hudson River School initiated 175 years before her. Perhaps it is purely coincidence that she happens to live in a habitat similar to those earlier romantic landscape painters, but regardless, her surroundings obviously offer inspiration and fertile ground for endless artistic
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