It's not always easy to tell just what you're looking at in a Sukey Bryan landscape or seascape, but it really doesn't matter. They're not, after all, about their subject matter. They're about how they're made, with an energetic brush stroke that gives them an exhilarating dynamic. They're about certain qualities of landscape painting, such as light; the textures of materials, including earth and water; and a sense of composition that sometimes, but not often, deserts Bryan. And they're about a romantic vision of landscape as symbolic of aspirations and emotions.
Bryan, who in 1993 won a visual artist's fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, has been traveling in Scotland, Iceland, Norway and the American West. The paintings in this show come from those travels, though the artist says they are not executed on site; they are done in the studio using notes, sketches and photos.
The paintings in this show, all from this year, mark Bryan as an uncommonly strong but somewhat uneven artist. When she's successful, as she usually is here, her paintings have great presence. They come out and grab hold of you with their intensity, their atmosphere, their ability to capture moods.
"Drinking Water" is a picture of a waterfall, a cliche if there ever were one. But Bryan really captures the crashing and boiling of the water and, in the foreground, the brush strokes fairly jump out at the viewer as the water appears to flee the chaos at the bottom of the fall as if in fear of its life.
In "Breath of Life" (Bryan's titles can be corny), it's not clear whether we're seeing burning trees or a particularly vivid sunset or something else, but that's all right. The upward-rushing strokes and the intense, hot light rivet the attention.
"Fishing Circle" deals with three elements -- earth, air and water -- and makes the water and the air appear as voluminous and solid as the earth while preserving the identity of each.
Bryan's also one of those artists -- not too common -- who can work in different scales with roughly equal success. Her pictures here range from 3 1/2 -by-2-inches to 6 1/2 -by-11 feet, and through most of that range she works with ease, adjusting down the size of her brush stroke in the small paintings without losing the interest of the surface. "Stone Circle" is only 8-by-10 inches, but it holds the eye as well from across the gallery as it does from a few inches away.
"Day Break," the largest painting, is not one of her most successful works. It's too big an area without a strong enough focus of attention, it goes flabby in the middle, and its drips at the top are silly-looking in their symmetry -- one at the left, one at the right and a small group in the middle. For drips to look that calculated somehow goes against the essence of drip.
But that's an exception. For the most part, it's refreshing to see a painter who tackles the subject of landscape and keeps it interesting.
What: "Sukey Bryan Paintings"
Where: Galerie Francoise, Green Spring Station, Falls and Joppa roads
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; through Sept. 30
Call: (410) 337-2787