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The art of science

The Collector's Confession reveals the wonder that fuels scientific pursuits


There's truth in the cliched image of the mad scientist with electrified gray hair standing on end, a look of pinwheel mania in his eyes.

The controlled, unemotional connotations of "science" often mask an obsession bordering on the irrational. Science, as archetypes like Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Faustus have proven, can be not just rational and intellectual, but also emotional and intense. Matters of life and death unfold beneath the test tube's steady gaze and the archeologist's probing hatchet.

The beauty of Suzanne Stryk's paintings in The Collector's Confession, located in the vaulted ceiling and sunlit context of Fernbank Museum, is in how they address the element of mystery and enchantment that underlies the seemingly detached realm of science. Stryk's fervid images of beetles, wasps nests, feathers and frog skeletons become doubly profound amidst Fernbank's taxidermied bears, squirrels and eternally irritated minks. While the stuffed specimens exhibit a certain scientific remove and detachment, Stryk's flora and fauna are as dramatic as a diva on opening night.

The natural history setting also enlarges our appreciation of Stryk's work. Paintings that might seem too ornately romantic and fussy in a traditional museum are a perfect fit in this purview.

The artist's theatrical treatment of nature often resembles Romanticism's exaltation of the senses over Enlightenment's stodgy reason. She suggests that the deeper one delves into the matter of things -- even down to the skeleton -- the more evanescent things like truth and practicality can become.

Her paintings manage to nimbly combine science and fantasy. And her wooden panels also blend techniques both traditional and contemporary. Using rich oily blacks and dense ochres, she offers a jewel-like depiction of her flora and fauna that suggests the visual lushness of the Old Masters. But her work also has a modern edge in the way she uses three-dimensional techniques and breaks her paintings into sections, like building blocks that spell out a larger story.

Nature in Stryk's hands often takes on religious and romantic overtones, as in "Private Devotion I," a shrine-like composition in which a delicate bird perched on a tree is framed inside a peaked structure. Where a religious icon might depict a Virgin or a Christ at its center, Stryk shows her reverence for nature by framing individual feathers within their own tiny shrines.

At other times, the work simply suggests a kind of ecstatic religious state. In "Facts of Life II," a pair of disembodied wings explodes into a mass of feathers.

Even when Stryk's approach seems entirely scientific and orderly, the artist can't hide the glimmer of fascination. In "The Collector's Obsession," she juxtaposes a single nest, raised from the painting surface with modeling paste, against a variety of eggs rendered on a grid. Her images of eggs -- from speckled brown to delicate blue -- or the wondrous variations in feathers, carry an implicit awe that defies the orderliness of categorization.

But there are moments when Stryk surpasses commentary and finds herself overwhelmed. In those instances, her paintings do not merely comment upon the wonder of nature but are consumed by it. "Collection (Nest II)" is a sublimely ecstatic image in which the painting is split at the horizon, between five birds' nests on the ground and a frenzy of birds flying in the sky above. A divide appears between those cast-off, grounded nests and the delightful hurly-burly of flight. In that single image, Stryk does much to convey the delightful paradoxes between science and fantasy, between earthly gravity and spiritual flight.


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