Painting — any artistic endeavor, really — is always a risk. But when you’re taking someone else’s unfinished piece of art and putting your own brushstrokes onto it, turning it into something new entirely, that’s a risk of an entirely different kind.
That’s what Nathan Durfee has done with his show Blending Tides, which opens April 3 at Robert Lange Studios (RLS), and will be on display through the end of the month. Created with 10 other artists, the show features 20 collaborative works, from paintings to mixed media pieces.
While in some cases, Durfee and the artists agreed on an initial concept, in general the process was an exercise in embracing the unknown. “One of the advantages of working by yourself is that you can throw 20 hours of sweat into a painting and then go, ‘Well, that didn’t work out,’ and burn it and no one sees it,” Durfee says. “[With these collaborative pieces] I couldn’t take too many risks personally, but the inherent risk of working on someone else’s painting instilled enough fear to make it worth it.”
Durfee has done collaborations before, most notably with Megan Lange, co-owner of RLS. Lange paints quiet, melancholic landscapes drawn from her Maine upbringing, and Durfee has peopled a number of those with his vibrantly colored, imaginative beasts. The two artists’ styles and subject matter complement each other well, so well that they’ve mounted two full shows together. In all, Durfee estimates that they’ve done more than 100 collaborative paintings together.
So while the act of putting his own mark on what was originally another’s canvas is nothing new to Durfee, doing it on such a scale, and with so many different artists, is bold new territory. Since each artist works in his or her own unique way, Durfee had to figure out how to approach each individual partnership — he couldn’t simply ask each artist to start a painting or piece of work and then hand it over to him. “We had to adjust for people’s different painting styles,” he says.
The two pieces created with Patch Whisky, for example, are paintings that Durfee did — one could even say completed — and then gave to the street artist, who overlaid them with his signature rainbow monsters. “With Patch, it’s like he’s coming in and tagging my facade,” Durfee says.
Another of the more unusual pieces is with the creator of Finkelstein’s Center handmade toys, Michelle Jewell. She and Durfee came up with a mixed media piece featuring a window frame, made by a local woodworker, with a landscape by Durfee behind it. One of Jewell’s little stuffed creatures is sitting on the windowsill, holding a sketchbook filled with Durfee’s own sketches.
The rest of the works in the show are with artists Kevin Taylor, Karen Ann Myers, Ahren Hertel, Hirona Matsuda, Eric Johnson, Gregg Lambton-Carr, Brett Schieflee, Megan Lange, and Robert Lange (hyperrealist Robert Lange is actually the first artist that Durfee ever collaborated with; it should also be noted that Durfee is represented by RLS). These are all artists whom Durfee knows personally, and who simply said yes when Durfee asked them to work with him — it’s truly his brainchild, from start to finish. “RLS trusted me to kind of go on my own,” he says. “They have this positive, wonderful attitude of supporting me, and giving legitimacy to what is essentially a handful of people experimenting on some new concepts.”
One of those new concepts that is by far the most striking is on view in Durfee’s work with photographer Gregg Lambton-Carr. Titled “The Look on Elizabeth,” the piece is a digital photograph, a portrait, printed on canvas. Durfee painted over the face, giving her patchwork skin, black eyes, and a delicate smile. The result is a triumph of sensitivity and restraint — although that wasn’t the original plan. “When I looked at that painting, I thought I’m going to cover the entire face and pretty much repaint the painting in my style,” Durfee says. “About two hours into it, it became very apparent that this was going to be a less-is-more approach. I just remember thinking, ‘I need to take this in a completely different direction.’ I ended up tapping into something in that painting, in terms of emotion and directness and sensitivity.”
That sort of possibility, the chance that one might discover previously unexplored depths of one’s art, is where the thrill of such high-pressure work lies. There’s never any telling what another’s creativity might bring out in us. “It’s a very trusting thing,” Durfee says. “I’m thankful that these artists trusted me with their stuff. It’s very personal.”