Nathan Durfee, December 2014
December 5, 5-8pm
Durfee’s characters are reminders sometimes skies are cloudy, and everyone has just an OK day once in awhile, but there’s always something...
Nathan Durfee’s paintings are filled with sweetness: fluffy sheep, expressive pandas and rosy faces layered on cloudy backgrounds make their way in. Despite the colorful subject matter and whimsical settings, Durfee’s work often conveys a tinge of melancholy or menace. Amid the more than 30 unique birds perched happily on telephone wires in Trying to Act Natural, there’s a cat lurking in a bird’s mask. The panda fishing in solitude in Panda Is Having an OK Day is tied to a dark cloud hanging overhead. And those adorable sheep? They’re languishing in the ocean in Collected Amongst the Sea Foam. The fact they blend in with the frothy spray isn’t helping.
Durfee’s upcoming show at Robert Lange Studios, featuring 40 of his works, is titled Peering Under Hints of Wonder. The works convey Durfee’s love of whimsy, no matter how dire the situation.
“I like show titles that explain just enough,” Durfee says. “I’m examining little moments in life we all have, yet they feel unique to us.”
Take Panda Lets It Go, an oil on panel featuring a giant panda, sitting in the sea. He’s just lost his head, as it floats like a balloon up to the sky. Despite its illustrative features and charming composition, the painting could make a kid burst into tears immediately. Its deeper meaning is positive, though.
“The painting shows the thread that’s holding the panda’s mind to his body is starting to fray,” Durfee says. “It’s a visual metaphor for when you’re just starting to drift into sleep or meditation. It’s shedding off your doubts. Sometimes you need to let go of these doubts.”
Durfee took a brave plunge himself five years ago when he left a career as an illustrator to pursue painting fulltime. This exhibition marks the seventh time the 31-year-old has shown at Robert Lange Studios in more than five years. He hasn’t lost that illustrator touch— book behemoth Scholastic Corporation employed him to design some covers because of his gallery success, and Durfee says now more than ever before, the line between illustrator and artist is blurring.
“The biggest adjustment in terms of narrative theme is the nature of how we expose ourselves to illustrations and paintings,” Durfee says. “With the illustration, the viewer needs to be able to grasp it in the first few seconds, and then they turn the page. At the same time, the work needs to be approachable to a lot of different people. With painting, you don’t have to have a lot of people like it— you only need one person to fall in love with it. You have the freedom to be more ambiguous with your themes and riskier with your topics, but taking extra care and adding little moments for people to discover later on really adds something special to the paintings.”
Durfee integrates plenty of detailed moments to keep people staring. The complex Sasha Continues with Grace features a breast cancer survivor, hovering within a hoop representing challenges, as the ambling bear below her represents time that keeps marching on, the cat perched on her knee symbolizes nagging thoughts, and the tattoo covering the area of her mastectomy represents having the strength to turn something heartbreaking into something beautiful. Durfee, who has friends who are breast cancer survivors, says despite the specific topic, the painting can inspire hope in any viewer.
“We all have been through a lot and have had trials and tribulations, but just because we had adversity in the past doesn’t exempt us from the future,” Durfee says.
Like Sasha Continues with Grace, Collected Amongst the Sea Foam similarly shows strength amid struggle.
“The painting just began with: sheep are fuzzy, and sea foam is white,” Durfee says, “but my creative process is taking a simple visual and turning it into a metaphor. This girl is trying to rescue needles in a haystack. She may not be able to collect all the sheep, but she’s taking pride in doing the best she can. It’s cold and heartless, but it’s life that we can’t pick up all the sheep. As long as we acknowledge everyone makes that same compromise, you have to be comfortable with the sheep you’ve collected.”
Durfee says he strives to reflect personal experiences in his life in his work, but they’re put through a filter that makes them universally approachable and acknowledgeable. For Megan Lange, who has collaborated with Durfee and is co-owner of Robert Lange Studios, his narratives are effective at enticing viewers to enter precious new worlds.
“There’s always some kind of reaction to Nathan’s work,” Lange says. “Daily, I get to watch people respond to complex story lines, which at first glance are often overlooked because of his whimsical style of painting. However, upon closer inspection and, often after reading the titles, viewers realize there is so much more to what they are seeing.”
Durfee’s characters are reminders sometimes skies are cloudy, and everyone has just an OK day once in awhile, but there’s always something to appreciate about whatever moments life presents.