Just how long curator Michael Preble has been thinking about water can be seen in the impressive scale and diversity of the works collected for his latest series of exhibits at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center.
Sparked by Hampton Roads' defining links to its rivers, the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, "Aquatic" features more than 100 images investigating the beach, boats and ships and swimming holes as well as 19th-century Japanese landscapes incorporating various kinds of water.
And like Preble's past shows exploring general themes, it takes a broad idea and then finds works that define it again and again, not only revealing and enlarging on its meaning but also setting up rich, often unexpected links among those explanations.
In the collection titled "Floating," for example, a series of 1930s steamship posters — including French-Ukrainian artist Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron's famed depiction of the SS Normandie — mix with such unlikely companions as Rockwell Kent's 1931 woodblock print "Oarsman" and Alfred Stieglitz's 1907 photograph "Steerage."
Two vibrant primitivist views by Gloucester artist Kacey Sydnor Carneal add color and energy to the mix, as does the "Great Wave off Kanagawa II" created by master Japanese printmaker Hokusai in 1832.
"This is a subject worth treating in depth — and I wanted viewers to be able to look at it in a wide variety of ways that might not be familiar," Preble says.
"So we took works by nationally known artists and regional artists — works from museums, galleries, private collections and artists — and mixed them all up to see what would happen."
Such contrasts and comparisons start in the opening gallery, where Preble has assembled dozens of paintings, photos and other works under the umbrella of "A Day at the Beach."
While British artist Graham Nickson's "Bather with Green Towel" embraces its subject through arresting abstractions complicated by a hint of existentialist drama, Minneapolis artist Megan Rye's "Dog Beach" bristles with such curious, hotly imagined detail that it verges on the surreal.
Then there's Roanoke photographer Sam Kirsch's "Dissolving Monument, Iceland," which fuses the stark simplicity of black-and-white film with panoramic scale to give this depiction of epically slow yet irresistible seaside forces a forceful sense of the monolithic as well as the eternal.
"Floating" divides and bundles many of its works in the same way, beginning with the Art Deco posters portraying such sculptural-looking ocean liners as the Normandie.
Created by Mouron in 1935, the iconic image borrows from both Surrealism and Cubism to produce a full-frontal, imposingly symmetrical view of the bow, underscoring the size and power of the ship by placing you directly in front of its towering hull.
"I couldn't pass this up," Preble says, describing his search at the neighboring Mariners' Museum. "It's wonderful."
Just as engaging is the eye-catching work's influence on how you look at the other images in "Floating."
Compare its celebration of sophisticated nautical design, luxury and engineering, for example, with the cramped, working-class vessel made famous by Stieglitz's "Steerage." Then there's the gap between the sleek lines and mechanical grandeur of the Normandie and the blue-collar scale and simplicity of Kent's tiny one-man rowboat.
"This is another loan from the Mariners'," Preble says, "and it's just as wonderful."
In "Hiroshige's Waters," nearly 50 19th-century Japanese prints mix, match and diverge in similar fashion, juxtaposing numerous ways of incorporating water in a larger landscape.
Sometimes it's simple, Preble says, and sometimes it's complex. Yet in each case the sea, lake, river or cloudburst of rain plays an important role in the composition as well as the action being depicted.
"Swimming Holes" features dozens of images, too, each one capturing an unexpectedly formal portrait of a bather asked to pose at their favorite watery haunt.
But as you scan these faces and figures, you soon find out that Portsmouth-born photographer Christian Johnston's shots are not landscapes at all.
Instead they focus on the gazes of people who are unusually intent on getting back to nature.
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Want to go?
"Aquatic," an exhibition of more than 100 works exploring water
Where: Peninsula Fine Arts Center, 101 Museum Drive, Newport News
When: Through Oct. 6
Cost: $7.50 adults, $4 children 6-12
Information: 757-596-8175 or http://www.pfac-va.org