Seattle painter David Kroll is a Chicago transplant who moved to the Northwest ten years ago, responding to the lure of the great outdoors. Not coincidentally, his own work, now on display in Pioneer Square, includes lively depictions of the natural world, but Kroll’s birds and bees are engaged in activities rather different then what you might see in your local woodland. Joining us to discuss this intriguing work is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Kroll has chosen a quite different route. His deft, technically brilliant works borrow imagery from several traditional painting genres, including museum dioramas, the lively birds of John James Audubon, Dutch still life, and pre-modernist American landscape painting.
His palette further reinforces the “old-fashioned” atmospherics of the works, with many of the backgrounds and foregrounds dominated by earthy olive browns, and even the flower colors often muted or grayed-down. Kroll’s subject matter focuses on a narrow array of familiar objects, including vintage ceramics, tasteful bouquets, and various types of wildlife, including winged insects, birds, rabbits, and goldfish.
But Kroll takes our expectations about historical painting, and gives it a good twist.
Traditional as it may appear, the key to Kroll’s imagery is a painting tradition with a much more modern pedigree: magic realism. Magic realism, a term that came into use in the mid-20th century, is defined as “the art of the implausible, not the impossible; strange juxtapositions suggesting a dreamed or imagined reality”. Magic realism is a sort of housebroken surrealism, lacking the preoccupation of the earlier, better-known movement with the distorted, violent, and sexual underworld of the subconscious, but sharing with surrealism the desire to go beyond the literal.
In Kroll’s case, nearly every detail of his natural history tableau is manipulated to be slightly off kilter, from the highly ambiguous space in which the paintings are set, to the odd activities of his animal subjects.
Take the large painting "Globe, Bowl, and Nests," for example. In the picture, a small array of creatures and objects are artfully arranged on what looks like a polished wood floor or counter top, like that in a display case. On the left, two tiny nests hold a cluster of green eggs, which attract the attention of a small green frog. On the right a songbird perches on an antique bowl, below which sit several more eggs, two of which are nearly as tiny as the bird’s eyeball, like miniature versions of bird eggs. In the center, an acrobatic egret balances on a large painted globe, the bird’s gaze directed towards the songbird, while its feet rest on the globe, up in the vicinity of what would be Europe. The background of this unlikely grouping is typical Kroll: a murky, monochromatic view of a grove of trees and a dusky sky, its olive and sepia tones merging seamlessly with the farther reaches of the tabletop/floor, as though the landscape was simply a photo studio backdrop, draped both behind and below the subjects. The same palette plus blue is used to depict the continents and oceans on the globe, as well as the hand-painted, landscape decorating the bowl; add white and a touch of green, and that’s the entire range of colors.
What’s going on here? In this image, like all of his recent work, Kroll explores the intersection of the natural and the domestic, but it’s clearly man who holds the upper hand, since Kroll’s wildlife is depicted in what looks like an interior space, with the animals using household items like bowls, books, and vases for their nests, perches, and hiding places. The globe, which makes several appearances in the exhibit, is also a none-too-subtle reminder of the stakes currently at play, with the destruction and alteration of nature on a worldwide scale nearly an everyday occurrence.
In fact, the quality of the landscape background on this and similar works calls into question the idea of the natural itself. The purposely nostalgic stylization which Kroll employs to depict his forested settings, and the collapsed space between background and foreground, recalls the vision expressed by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, who in the book The End of Nature argued that we could no longer think of nature as independent of man. Kroll’s backgrounds suggest a remembered rather than a freshly experienced natural world – the idea of landscape rather than landscape itself.
Interestingly, the creatures in Kroll’s work seem entirely at home in their unlikely setting. While eggs are occasionally broken, and egg-laden nests appear about to topple out of precarious locations – especially one nest in a floral arrangement that’s sitting vertically rather than horizontally - the residents of these homely environments seem determined to go about their usual activities. The woodpecker that clings to a stack of hardcover books is about to peck away as though nothing were amiss, and elsewhere a wren calmly tends its egg on a bowl, a pearl-like shape alongside a string of actual pearls.
Kroll allows himself some truly lyrical moments in his peculiar, hermetic world. Several paintings – my favorites – contain swimming koi, their bright colors and energetic movements highlighted against a field of deepest black. With these paintings, Kroll dispenses with even the notion of legible space. Not only are the backgrounds in these paintings totally invisible, but the Koi are seen as though from above, swimming in the dark air just above the still life arrangement of pots and flowers. Kroll’s untethered Koi paintings are a reminder that nature, even at its most domesticated, still retains its attributes of freedom and poetry, and, arguably, it’s ability to inspire. These paintings represent a sort of post-romantic view of nature: trapped, threatened, and contained, but still latent with energy, purpose, and the promise of redemption.