Strange Nature: Arcimboldo and Bryan Drury

The relationship between humans and the natural world is complex. One strand of this history stretches from primeval Eden and the pastoral idyll through Romanticism and modern ecology. But the dangers and oddities of interspecies interaction have also received their fair share of attention, in, for example, evolutionary ideas such as the survival of the fittest and “hopeful monsters” (those peculiar sports of nature that point toward possible metamorphoses).
Contemporary realist painter Bryan Drury voices his concern about “the contrived separation and the capricious influence that we as a species have established in relation to the natural world.” Drury’s Feast (2010) depicts animal forms with the meticulousness of an accomplished naturalist/illustrator. The elegant wing spread of the eagle and the sharp eyes, tufted ears and grasping paws of the squirrel are particularly fine. But the way these creatures are combined in a roiling mass, the bodies further intertwined with serpents, is unnerving, even before we notice that the barely glimpsed meal at the buffet is a human body. Drury has a point to make about the “processes of reciprocal life” in this beautifully executed work. Some of his other paintings are less polemical and more mysterious, such as Grey Fox (2007), in which the eponymous animal appears in the human world, an interior with a framed portrait of a girl and an open sketchbook. There are two light sources—a candle on the foreground desk and a lamp in a distant room—that create a feeling of the uncanny. Drury admires the creatures he paints. The grey-brown bird of prey flexing golden talons against shoals of rose-red blossom in Nexus (2010) is a formidable raptor. The diagonal thrust of the tree limb that forms his perch adds to the dynamism of the composition. Nature is not simply observed, but—very effectively—staged.
Drury’s human subjects share in the theatrical mystery, reminding us that one of the uses of realism is to make strangeness vitally present. Bird (2010) presents a stage set for the theater of the mind. The dark-haired young woman with shadowed eyes stands in front of a emerald green puppet theater box, in communion with a robin. A distant staircase occupies the background, confined to a narrow sliver of space on the side. In Mi Familia es Mi Vida (2009), a wan young man stands in front of a pale stone screen of Gothic tracery; a green landscape can be glimpsed in the background. With his longish hair and slight beard, he has the look of a hipster Memling poet; he wears the painting’s title tattooed across his bare chest. In Cassandra (2008), Drury presents the prophetess as a floating head in a pale blue sphere. Her blood-red hair frizzes out around her like crackling electricity, and her piercing blue eyes are haunting. Inevitably, she calls to mind the mythic Medusa, turned into an icon of tragic beauty by the Romantics. Drury’s human and animal subjects are part of a complicated nature continuum.
The old master prankster and the contemporary provocateur demonstrate the varied possibilities of realism, which rarely—in the hands of thoughtful, skilled artists—settles for anything as simple as uninflected verisimilitude. Bryan Drury work is on view at Dean Project Gallery, 511 West 27th Street, New York, New York 10011. Telephone (212) 229-2017. On the web at