One of the great recurring themes of Western Art involves naked people lying around in the grass. From mythological romps by Titian or Poussin, through Manet's unlikely combo of clothed and naked figures in "Le Dejeuner sur L'herbe," all the way to late-mod Brit painter Cecily Brown's delightful orgiastic works, you can hardly take a stroll through a certain kind of landscape painting without stumbling over the human figure.
This is not a bad thing; Emile Zola once wrote about Manet's great composition that "he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape." But when all is said and done, there is something, well, funny about it.
Massachusetts artist Justin Durand's drawn and painted images in his Proximity Gallery show Strawberries appreciate the oddness of this classic juxtaposition. Many of Durand's acrylic-and gouache-on-paper studies also contrast the story-telling qualities of a woodcut-like linear manner with ever-increasing amounts of paint, most of it green. Durand's figures have a medieval feel — as if he's imagining some demon-haunted Eden — and are laced with a deliberately clumsy, cartoon-cum-doodle quality that echoes contemporary artists like James Siena and Edward Gorey.
In "Sound Asleep (2011)," three naked figures stretch out on a soft mess of green paint, as if on a gently sloping hill. One in the lower right lies in a darker patch splotched with red, like a doll dropped in a bush. All are lumpy and wrinkled, like fingertips after a long bath, and they're seen feet first, in poses similar to that of the dead Christ in Andrea Montegna's classic 15th-century depiction.
But striking though these personages are, their Elephant Man-type weirdness seems almost normal compared to the monumental, Monty Pythonish head that rises just beyond them. Elsewhere, there are figures equipped with at least one gigantic hand, as in Durand's picture "Positively Not Strawberries," which also features two fallen-idol-sized heads, whose profiles mushroom into the blank paper sky from stubby necks.
So what's going on? Since Durand provides no explanatory artist statement, his out-of-whack images necessarily remain ambiguous. Yet most of the figures and landscapes seen here are closely interrelated in visual terms, like snapshots from the same album or illustrations for a twisted children's book. Who are these people, or what?
Four small, informal drawings, slightly crumpled and looking like they were scrawled on school workbook paper, are also on display. In these, Durand depicts figures and heads that are something like his other nudes, but with a less focused stylistic attitude.
"Never (2010)" is a bust-like profile that's a near relative of this year's crop of big heads. But it's "Water Time (2007)" that may tell us the most about Durand. The ball-point-pen drawing shows a head sticking up from swirls of blue water, with a blond, sideways mop of hair and a silly grin. A red outline of a cloud hangs overhead, and a hand extends out of the water nearby. Probably the hand belongs to the figure, but what's important is the strangeness of the separation that the water enforces. It appears that in Durand's view, the world is not a place that fits together all that well.
In the end, Durand's Strawberries is about the exaggerations, oversimplifications, and miscalculations that are unavoidably part of anyone's sense of self. But disorientation is a subject that's both easy to express and hard to avoid; it might have been more interesting had he tried to connect things. What sort of messy saga might Durand not weave around these giant troll beings? You can't help but wonder.