Amidst the accomplished landscape painters calling Santa Barbara home, Michael Drury stands apart. For decades, Drury has traversed the familiar world of landscape painting, mostly in dedicated and site-spawned “plein air” style and rendered with a distinctive personal visual language.
Diehard admirers and neophytes alike are encouraged to check out his current one-person exhibition, Along the Way West, at the still-young Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery (adjacent to the Arlington Theatre, and run by fellow painter Richard Schloss and his wife, Julie). Through this body of paintings, made during Autumnal journeys throughout the west, the identifiable character of Drury’s lyrical yet unsentimental nature paeans seize our eye and spark nature-love.
His favored iconography, well represented here, is a lived-in domain of rugged — and often volcanic — landforms, amorphous cloud life (“Fall Morning, Alvord Desert”), coastal sightings, and the occasional barn (a vintage, rustic symbol of human presence). “Two Barns, Pt. Reyes” and “Mr. Gorzell’s Barn and Snow Sky” come across as stark, affectionate portraits — wistful architectural genuflections.
Stylistically, Drury’s touch as a painter is enhanced by an appreciation of the power of shadows and light, and restless harmonies of hard, soft, and jagged edges. A certain tough love quality comes through, as landscape art values go.
Drury’s local roots run deep, as a native Santa Barbaran who earned his BA and MFA degrees from UCSB, and a founding member of the respected OAK Group of painters with a passion for the outdoors. This year, Drury celebrates a significant half-century milestone, having met legendary landscape painter Ray Strong in 1970: Strong, whose natural diorama paintings can still be found at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, essentially provided the inspirational kindling and paradigm for the younger protégé artists in the OAK Group.
Ironically, the present feast of Drury’s painterly field reports entails a strange indoor-outdoor dichotomy, in synch with the perverse logistics of our COVID-restricted era. Many of us may be reluctant to engage in standard gallery-going behaviors at the moment but are willing to go deeper “inside” to take in art and culture on the internet. Thankfully, the gallery’s thorough online representation of the show makes for easy art appreciation. Granted, it’s a compromised perspective, lacking the scale or skin of taking in a painting at point blank range on a gallery wall.
Meanwhile, we may also feel inspired by Drury’s implied nature-advocacy to hit the road and visit the actual turf of Drury’s scenes — in Gaviota, Point Concepcion, Point Reyes, and the vast region known as the “Great Basin” (including the Mojave Desert and through Nevada). In some case, Drury showcases the majesty of mountainscapes surprisingly, through the scrim of shadowy vistas, as in “June Morning Near Lone Pine” and “Badgers Nose, Fall Afternoon,” tiny yellow trees like spectral bursts against the dark backdrop.
Specificity of place and seasonal time are generally important to Drury, and yet he can also embrace the idea of geoclimatic ambiguity, as with his GPS-liberated paintings “Somewhere in Nevada” and its companion, “Elsewhere in Nevada.”
A veritable triptych of Pt. Conception paintings account for some of the most striking and memorable canvases in this bunch. “Winter Morning, Point Conception” and “Winter Solstice Morning at the Point” are unorthodox compositions in which a slip of jagged lighthouse promontory lurks in the lower section of the pictorial space, juxtaposed against a vast expanse of ocean, a case in which the ocean’s “ground” looms over the presumed “figure” in the compositional equation. Storm clouds stew overhead in “Approaching Cold Front,” and a coiled drama is afoot in the scene, here aided by the title’s sense of weather shifts in motion.
As seen in this exhibition, Drury’s adventures on the western home front continue apace, with eyes wide open and a painterly voice to call his own.
411: Michael Drury, Along the Way West, at Santa Barbara Fine Art, 1321 State St. Open daily. Click here for hours and more information.