What the Eye Wants at Sara Nightingale

"A Walk in the Forest"
Like many of the artworks on view at the Sara Nightingale Gallery in Sag Harbor, Christa Maiwald’s “Winter Cake With Chocolate Trees” uses the limbs or shadows of trees as compositional elements.

Sara Nightingale has an innate sense of what the eye longs to see. In her eponymous gallery in Sag Harbor, she has regularly shown works that respond to the seasons, news headlines, environmental concerns, and spiritual malaise.

For the last days of winter and first days of spring, she is offering “A Walk in the Forest” through Tuesday. Full of metaphors and literal expressions of the theme, the artwork reflects her engagement with beauty, poetry, symbolism, and the health of the planet.

The artists on display (Irina Alimanestianu, Ani Antreasyan, Madeleine Bialke, Stephanie Brody-Lederman, Tom Brydelsky, Rossa Cole, Elizabeth Dow, Cara Enteles, Sara Genn, Shirley Irons, Laurie Lambrecht, Elena Lyakir, Christa Maiwald, and Anne Raymond) veer from partial and idiosyncratic realism to the completely abstract. And the materials and mediums they chose are just as varied as their styles.

Some, like Mr. Cole, even take a single subject, like one of his Asian longhorn beetle twig sculptures, and make a photograph out of it, creating two artworks for the conceptual effort of one.

So what’s on view here? It ranges from those beetle sculptures, which greet visitors from the gallery window with a sweet watercolor landscape on paper by Ms. Antreasyan, to encaustic over photography, oil paint over photography, regular old oil paint, and straight-up photography.

Ms. Irons has two oil landscapes cropped midway that result in composisitions focused on the upper branches of trees and sky. This untethering gives them a meditative quality. They float in a space that offers telephone poles and electrical wires as an intrusion or stand-in for humans and the constant stress of their needs on the natural world. In “White Sumac,” the tree’s branches are still and barren. The limbs reflect the artist’s linear focus, almost absent of color.

“Larger Wind” offers a more dramatic environment as an evergreen appears to be blown almost sideways. The static lines in the other canvas are replaced by brushy blurs of blackish green color. The implied movement is palpable. 

Ms. Lyakir’s “Illumination” photograph mounted on plexiglass also plays up the linear aspect of trees. Mr. Cole’s beetles, made up of twigs with linear arrangements, feel harmonious here. Ms. Alimanestianu’s “A Walk in the Forest” oil-on-panel painting is many things, but the strong verticals of her composition make the first impression.

Other works touch on elements of painting and drawing. Ms. Dow’s work appears to be white paint over a black-and-white print or photograph of woods. The paint drowns out the noise of the foreground to highlight the beauty of the forest canopy itself and allows in small openings of light. 

Mr. Brydelsky takes a similar approach by layering wax over his photographic compositions mounted on panel. The wax looks like letter-sized sheets, and the seams created between each piece act like a windowpane overlay that keeps us from connecting directly with the beauty of the outdoors. 

There are also works that defy easy classification, hybrids of style and intent. From Ms. Maiwald’s photograph of a perfectly formed and accented chocolate cake in a snowy landscape’s birdbath to Ms. Brody-Lederman’s word paintings and Ms. Lambrecht’s tree trunk photographs printed onto linen with embroidery, these works challenge preconceptions and our expectations of the natural world. 

There are material or conceptual layers present, even when it’s just oil on canvas. Ms. Bialke’s “Ice Queen” offers a fanciful landscape in transition with a tree made of ice and an ice-covered rock formation placed in the midst of an otherwise temperate-looking setting. It’s not hard to pick up warnings of global warming. Ms. Genn’s impastoed canvases have brushstrokes so built up that they create real shadows within the work when natural or artificial light plays over them.

With a mostly somber palette, the works of two artists are notable for their sense of animation or spring exuberance. Ms. Raymond’s traditional Abstract Expressionist canvas feels like both the rapid and slow awakening of a pond or field amidst a still-frosty setting. 

Ms. Enteles’s paintings typically use wildflowers or native species as her subject matter. Her acrylic sheet backings give the oil and silkscreen she applies to them a transparent or spectral quality. One isn’t sure whether she is referencing plants that were lost to winter’s frost or the spirits of future blooms soon to emerge, like Persephone, from the ground.

In this show, Ms. Nightingale allows us to pause, meditate, and recognize nature for all of the things it can be: beautiful, destructive, threatening, nurturing, and more. With so much of our attention directed downward to what’s playing on our smartphones, the works remind us to look up, slow down, and fully absorb nature’s and humankind’s inventions in our surroundings at a given moment.