Mark Strauss, an administrator-turned-painter from Maurertown, Va., is an artist who enjoys color and surface; that much is obvious in the exhibition of 32 Strauss paintings at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Rockville, a show covering his 17-year career as an artist. Despite the swirls of confectionary color and the sheer exuberance of dynamic form, I found it difficult to share Strauss' pleasure, because he's exploring territory already settled some 70 years before by the pioneers of cubism.
Abstracting perception into volumetric geometry is an idea of considerable force, as proved by the accomplishments of cubism and its many offshoots -- such as Italian futurism, which celebrated the machine age; or English vorticism, which left behind a poet, Ezra Pound, instead of a painter; or orphism, as principally practiced by the Frenchman Robert Delaunay around 1912. It's Delaunay I thought closest to Strauss' philosophy -- particularly Delaunay's idea of "simultanisme," e or cubism-as-color. "The breaking up of form by light creates color planes . . . which serve as pretexts, structures, for description," Delaunay said, and it could be a description of Strauss' intent as well as his own.
Unfortunately, it's not clear that Strauss is adding to Delaunay's contribution; if anything he often subverts it by a kind of frivolity that trivializes many of these technically impressive works. That is particularly true of his paintings of "events" -- football games, nightclub acts, even a three-part tribute to the space shuttle Challenger.
Landscapes -- particularly scenes of Shenandoah County in Virginia -- struck me as more original and satisfying applications of the neofuturist techniques of exploding perspectives, hard-edge geometry and rainbow colors. One example is the 1967 "Limpopo River," with its soothing yet lurid swirls of magenta and lemon yellow or the bucolic beauty of "Less Than Heaven I," done in 1985.
Susan Harlan's evocations of the ancient and iconic spirit of the bison share Strathmore's space with Mark Strauss' polychrome works, but that's where their similarity ends. Harlan, a one-time Florida artist now living in Silver Spring, is showing a number of assemblage sculptures as well as 20 works on paper and other collage/constructions.
Harlan's wall pieces aren't particularly successful; I couldn't see "the shaman setting out on his magical journey" or any of the other evocations Harlan intended in these undeniably handsome, well crafted but ultimately obscure pieces.
More evocative by far are her three-dimensional bison figures made from bark, sheets of tar and gold leaf, which despite their almost weightless state, uncannily suggest the spirit of the massive buffalo.
Like much contemporary sculpture -- particularly "junk" or process sculpture, a favorite of many Washington artists -- the surfaces of these pieces are deliberately anti-sensual and describe the "gesture" of sculpting itself by showing the armature or skeleton of the sculpture; there is little attempt to have surfaces echo "content." There is no doubt that these "bison" are made of dirt, plastic, chicken wire and wood. But if surface and texture refer more to the art of the work, the contours of the entire piece invoke its spirit -- that of the brooding, mythic bison.
Some of the bison hang from the ceiling indoors and others graze outdoors, although the day I was there the grazing bison had been moved up to a porch so the lawn could be mowed. There they resembled other ancient creatures, giant horseshoe crabs, perhaps, who seemed bewildered to find themselves on the portico of a 19th-century mansion.
Strathmore Hall Arts Center is located at 10701 Rockville Pike, adjacent to the Grosvenor Metro station. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Wilhelm Bronner at Henri
The Henri Gallery is featuring the work of a young German artist, Wilhelm Bronner, whom the gallery first showed three years ago. I was hoping to see some of Bronner's watercolors, as one was featured on the invitation, but there were none in the show -- the thrifty artist had used up some invitations left over from a show in Germany.
However, the disappointment was lessened by several interesting works, one a painting of erotic guitars and figures faintly echoing Klee and Picasso. I also liked Bronner's melancholy and romantic paintings on burlap, particularly a turquoise head deliberately primitive like much German work.
Unfortunately, much of the space was taken up by Bronner's Kurt Schwitters-like boxes -- containing mementos along with the artist's tools -- which were drab and tame.
The Henri Gallery, at 1500 21st St. NW, is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays. Bronner's work will be on view until Aug. 3.