Adam Straus is a study in escapism — both as an artist, and as a person.
He moved to the East End 15 years ago to get away from the city, missing the nature that defined his youth in southern Florida. His first trip to Montauk was all it took, completely taken by the famed light and space, as countless artists have experienced before him.
Today, his home and studio in Riverhead inspire much of his art practice, which is an escape, as well — a coping mechanism with current events, a news cycle that shaped his childhood as the product of two activist-minded parents.
And, yet, Straus is still tuned in. He can never truly get away, and there is a part of him that doesn’t want to — though he does want to stand on his own as an East End artist.
That has finally happened.
For just the second time in almost two decades, Straus — who is known for his luminous depictions of the sublime, which are often saturated with concern about social and environmental issues — is showing solo on the East End in “Oncoming,” which opened last weekend at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor, and will remain on view through April 19.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, “especially because so much of what I’ve done has been inspired by the atmosphere and the light and the landscape out here, a couple of which are in the show. It’s been such an influential place for what I’ve painted.”
As a child, Straus was not the least bit interested in art. His mother was a sculptor, and also loved Caesar Chavez, indoctrinating his movement to unionize migrant farm workers into the family’s everyday lives. They boycotted certain produce, such as grapes, and Straus never tasted iceberg lettuce until he went to college.
The Strauses were described as “liberal Jews who advocate such things as free speech, open forum discussion, and additional opportunities for colored people” in an FBI file that the artist’s father had gained during that time, primarily for raising money for Israel. They protested the Vietnam War and marched in front of Nixon’s “winter White House” compound, just down the street from where they lived on Key Biscayne.
That social and political awareness created an odd dichotomy for a young Straus, who witnessed an incredible change in the environment that he explored around him — preferring to learn about fish and snakes and birds than painters, sculptors and photographers, he said.
“I remember being dragged to the museums because of my mother and thinking it was just the most horrible thing,” he said. “My brothers and I wanted to be outside. We wanted to be swimming or in the swamps snake hunting —which, I have to say, fishing, diving, exploring the swamp doesn’t exactly compare to art. It’s hard to find art just as exciting as that kind of adventure. But that kind of adventure is what goes back into my art, and that awareness of history.”
A career path that started in marine biology and zoology eventually shifted to visual arts — first nature photography, then painting — and the revelation was not an easy one for Straus to grasp, he said.
“I realized what you could do with photography. It just blew my mind and opened up all these possibilities about communication with imagery,” he said. “I found a dark room in the basement of the girls’ dorm, and after studying my chemistry and math and zoology, I would go and print photographs, by myself, until 4, 5 in the morning. It just bit me. I talk about being bitten, in terms of the idea of finding your true passion. It’s like you’re on your way to the alter and, all of a sudden, you completely fall in love with somebody in the aisle and say, ‘What the hell?’”
He settled for a math degree from the University of Florida in 1978, but couldn’t stop thinking about photography, he said. “I tried to stay practical, but that doesn’t work when you’re enveloped by this idea of doing art,” he said. “It just doesn’t work. You can’t do anything else.”
Four years later, he would graduate with his MFA from Florida State University, where he knocked down all his walls and fell into sculpture and painting.
“They were these wild paintings, these dark, ominous totems and canvases, not at all like what I do now,” he said. “After graduate school in the mid ’80s, I was still doing photography and I was doing a lot of nocturnes, and I wasn’t getting what I wanted. So I just started painting it with black house paint, and rubbing through to let the light from the underneath white paint to create a black-and-white image that kind of looked photographic, but it wasn’t. And that’s when I started painting landscape.”
A series of his landscapes titled “Old News” — which are mounted on newspapers and then affixed to the canvas — are scenes of beauty, from mountains to gardens to oceans, but painted on top of devastation.
“I read articles every day and, lately, it just seems more depressing than in the last few years. Maybe it’s just my imagination, maybe it’s my age,” Straus said. “Part of the newspaper series originated as an escape, with this underlying layer of news with something magnificent on top — this natural, timeless thing on top of these timely events. It’s painful to me, and that’s what ends up inspiring a lot of what I do.”
On any given day, Straus can be found in his Riverhead studio — a converted two-car garage across his backyard — until he takes a break in the afternoon. He’ll then paint between four and five hours, working from photographs as he bounces between several small canvases that develop into larger pieces.
Then he’ll leave again, before making one last trek at the very end of the day.
“I’ll go back out to see what I did later that night. There’s something incredibly satisfying about it, but also very frustrating,” he said. “Sometimes you go back out and you go, ‘Oh, God, that sucks.’ Sometimes you go, ‘Wow, that’s better than I thought it was.’ It is a struggle but it always was a struggle. It’s so exciting to me to make. It’s magic. It’s magical to me.”
“Adam Straus: Oncoming” will remain on view through April 15 at the Grenning Gallery, located at 17 Washington Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, please call (631) 725-8469 or visit grenninggallery.com.