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Nathan Durfee uses fanciful characters to dig deeper

Durfee's Imaginarium

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One of Nathan Durfee's characters is dying. In "Mr. Arbordeed Makes a Home," the old man is almost submerged under water, his eyes are closed, and broken tree branches grow out of his head. At the center of his head, a beautiful tree reaches toward the sky, while several animals stand in the grass growing around his face, his reflection visible in the water below. But Durfee doesn't want to use the word death to describe the painting. "He's returning to the earth," the young artist says. "He's created this perfect ecosystem and saved his energy for this last swan song. This little patch of paradise wouldn't have happened without his effort."

Weaving dark and light moments of life is a theme of the 35 paintings in Durfee's latest show, The Soft Embrace of a Porcelain Night. A seven-panel series called "Dreamscape" is the centerpiece of the show. The series includes Michael the pink elephant hanging by a balloon over a prickly cactus, as well as the beloved Panda clasping a cocktail and seated under a cloud of rain.

In this whimsical, surrealist style, Durfee delves into the dualities of everyday life, finding humor in sad moments. "This children's book veneer allows me to explore deeper messages and not have people reject it," he says. "Nick's Slow Morning" depicts artist Nick Cave dressed in an elaborate soundsuit, seated at a table drinking a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper. Pandas, elephants, birds, and jellyfish are the vehicles he uses to express his vivid imagination.

A fan of Fauvism and the mixing of contrasting colors, Durfee uses a patchwork style, turning his clouds and skies into a pattern of geometric shapes. On closer inspection, a tree is created from a stained glass mosaic pattern, which he explains is just a different way of applying paint. "I'm always experimenting," he says.

Durfee enjoys working with artists of varying styles. Inspired by the 2009 show Different Strokes, a collaboration with artist and gallery owner Robert Lange, he has continued to seek partnerships with other artists. In "Sasha was Sarah for a Song," Durfee collaborated with artist and gallery owner Megan Lange. Drawn to her atmospheric landscapes, the resulting image reflects a more pensive mood. He says working with other artists forces him to give up control. "It's no longer my painting. It's a hybrid," he says.

Working with other artists allows him to explore different palettes and moods, reflecting an enduring curiosity. For his current show, Durfee also collaborated with Charles Williams, a landscape painter who was part of the successful summer show Still: Moving at RLS. Williams recently relocated to Charleston and is currently sharing a studio with Durfee on King Street. In the two panel pieces, "Diana Meets Her New Friend" and "Jeffrey Learns a Song," Durfee's characters float above and under Williams' signature unfinished edges of water. "I love how Charles deconstructs his landscapes," he says, "and I wanted to explore the mystery beneath the water."

Inspired by the world around him, Durfee says his characters are the filters he uses to express his stories. His paintings are personal and explorative in nature. "I refine them so they are more universal and the audience can relate," he says. Each painting tells a story, building on those from the past. Like a serial novelist, he keeps expanding his characters, taking the viewer deeper into the narrative.

Durfee works in his downtown studio every day, for six to eight hours at a time, trying to keep up with his fans' persistent demands. Megan Lange says Durfee's work has always been popular. "His last two solo shows have sold out, and this one should be no exception," she says. Regularly posting his paintings on the RLS blog has earned Durfee a wide following, and clients often call the gallery to ask for dibs on a painting they've seen online.

The paintings in this collection contain much more than playful characters. Look beneath the surface of a Durfee painting and the deeper messages within his stories will appear. The everyday and the fantastical — a jellyfish playing a harmonica, an elephant finally making it above the clouds — will inspire the viewer to wonder what lies beneath the surface.

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