Forever Young: Nathan Durfee's work inhabits a dreamy world of wit and wonder

Celebrations of Stems and Clouds
On view through Nov. 21
21 Magnolia Road
(843) 763-1551

There's an autumn-colored part of West Ashley inhabited by corpulent, mottled ladies, men with rosy cheeks and hollow eyes, daydreaming child-like adults and animals that look more intelligent than their owners.

No, it's not Bohicket Village. It's Nathan Durfee's superlative exhibition at Modernisme.

As well as introducing dozens of new creations by the figurative painter, Celebrations of Stems and Clouds also charts the development of his immaculate reality from initial idea through complex, large-scale oils — and it's a joy to visit his wonderland of soul-searching or gravity-defying subjects.

Durfee's a man in touch with his inner child, that playful part of himself with a knife-sharp sense of humor and a vivid imagination — the kind that stems from our formative years, only to be clouded by the everyday mundanity of adulthood.

Growing up in the small town of Bethel, Vt., Durfee had plenty of time to explore his active imagination.

"I never lived in a city-esque environment," he says.

Consequently, he didn't have all of his activities laid out for him. He had to amuse himself instead.

"That had a huge influence on my creativity," he says. "When I played knights, dragons, or superheroes, I had to imagine them and create the characters."

An amiable parade of pudgy-faced characters appear in Durfee's show. Some, like "A Princess Dreams," refer directly to children at play. A girl holds up a scaled-down horse with a rider that she's breathed life into through the sheer force of her imagination. Others depict dogs or adults equally eager to have fun. In "Captain Nudinak Anu," a nude male bather wears a paper hat and rides a rubber duck dinghy.

Next time he goes solo, I'd like to see Durfee experimenting with different backgrounds in his oil paintings. His deep blues are great, but their affect is diminished when aligned in a row together. Durfee's such a creative artist that I'm sure he'll try more palettes as he progresses — and he should be confident enough with his skilled work to push things further. I look forward to more of his reality-defying creative leaps in the future.

Bravely, the artist has put his accordion-style notebooks up for sale. They're the train-of-thought journals that help get his inventive juices flowing. Sometimes, they spark full-fledged paintings.

"They give people an intimate view of what's going on in my head," he says.

Loath to part with them, he's put a $5,000 price tag on each. The contents are a heady mixture of rushed, cartoonish sketches and perfectly drawn portraits.

So why is he parting with them at all?

"I rarely go back to the books for material," he explains. "They're more of an exercise for me. There are 50 to 100 painting ideas in each sketchbook."

Durfee's ink and acrylic work is the next step after his notebooks. They're clean, simple caricatures, using just one or two bright colors, with a line of cheeky humor. A pig looks longingly up at a pink zeppelin in "Phil's Crush." A well-endowed man uses his manhood to vault through "Bobby's Blessed." In "Midnight Serenade," a stilted robot sings the boogie electric.

Also in the show: reasonably priced oil paintings that pack the basic elements of Durfee's work — pleasantly freaky characters bouncing through colorful, cloud-specked landscapes — onto small frames. Similar in size to his ink and acrylic pieces, these retain the simplicity of his drawings but hint at the greater fantasy world shown in his more typical 2-inch by 4-inch work.

Composition–wise, there's a lack of depth in some of his paintings that helps to echo a Punch & Judy ethic.

"I've taken influences from old puppet dioramas," he says.

Durfee's will be the last show at Modernisme. It closes after Nov. 21.


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