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Natural Cure
For Michael Drury, landscape painting heals the earth

“Into the West,” Michael Drury’s current show at Sullivan Goss, Ltd., offers an unusually important opportunity to reflect on the meaning and the mission of contemporary plein air landscape work. One reason this is so is because Drury is very, very good at what he does, and the other is that he has begun to reap the special, higher rewards that nature only bestows on her truest devotees.

Each year Drury makes selected pilgrimages to favorite spots, mostly in California, Northern Nevada and Ireland, where he sometimes paints the same rock or tree over and over, entering into a dialogue with the place. The result of this sustained act of attention is an art of continuous revelation.

The current crop of Drury artwork falls into five major categories. There are horizontal “big picture” landscapes of the desert and the coast. There are rock studies and there are tree studies. There are complex pictures that isolate and describe the structure of mountains and ravines.

And finally, there are the buildings, mostly barns, plain houses and what Drury calls “temples of agriculture.”

The pictures of buildings are remarkable for the way they reinvent the modernist wheel. Drury generally takes an extremely frontal approach, reducing his subject to a constellation of flat planes. He tempers this jazzy, geometric quality of the compositions with sensitive modulations of value in the shadows. A red barn by Drury, for instance, is saturated with many other colors-brown, purples, white, black, even yellow and green.

” Temple of Agriculture, 2,” with its hard edges and thin borders, echoes such abstractions as Richard Diebenkorn’s ” Ocean Park” series. This is a kind of “stealth” modernism, in which the chromatic harmonies of abstract art seep back into consciousness through the weathered surface of an old wall.

Among the best pictures in the show are those that portray the drama of the earth’s crust as it twists, buckles and rises into mountains, ridges and ravines. One particularly important work is a large canvas on board, 36 inches by 50 inches, called “Winter Morning Light, Black Mountain.” Black Mountain is in Marin County near the Nicasio Reservoir. The ridge in the painting rises in a zigzag toward the sky where it meets the base of an enormous white cloud. In the ravine below, vegetation clings to the contours of the riparian fall line. Clouds above and plants below are twin expressions of nature in ascent, functions of water in various ways at odds with gravity. Drury belongs in that select company of landscape painters who see and show the principles of life at work within nature’s outward forms.

In 1891, Claude Monet developed a kind of obsession with the poplar trees that lined the river Epte near Giverny.

He returned again and again in his flat-bottomed painting skiff to paint these same trees some 28 times. Drury has found a similar sense of immanence in a stand of poplars near a lava rock formation in the desert of Northern Nevada.

“Barber Ranch Poplars” follows Monet in that it is a study of a special light situation, but it departs significantly from the master’s precedent in the boldness and modernity of its composition. A broad diagonal swath of shadow blankets the lower fifth of the trees in orange, accentuating the luminescent yellow of the leaves above.

These are trees as spiritual facts, not symbols, and the flaming ascent they enact is a part of an ecosystem of such power that it can, at times, undo the past.

Poplars, which have long been used as buffers near rivers and streams, have recently been found to have the ability to extract and neutralize toxic substances such as nitrates that have been introduced into the soil. This magical natural process is called “phytoremediation,” and it is on the cusp of the latest research in environmental biotechnology. Looking again at the twin flames of Drury’s “Barber Ranch Poplars” with this in mind, we can see the bright fires of nature and art at work together, burning off the residue of man’s toxic relations to the earth.

Charles Donelan
Santa Barbara News Press
October 2003

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