David Kroll’s paintings are, in one sense, nature studies and landscape studies, executed with an exquisite painterly technique.

But in another sense, the Seattle artist’s work is a delightfully fanciful exercise in artifice.

In his show at Grover/Thurston Gallery, Kroll repeatedly organizes his natural-world details into highly mannered compositions that keep the viewer continually off-balance. Within the scope of a single painting, the subtlety with which his imagery seems to slip from still-life intimacies to rolling mountain landscapes and sublime sky expanses spurs the viewer to think and see on two entirely different scales simultaneously — and sometimes even three or four, when there’s a painted vase in the picture.

In short, there are worlds within worlds here, and the interaction between them is both playful and illuminating.

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Take Kroll’s oil-on-panel “Koi and Gold-trimmed Vase,” for example. The fish and vase of the title are rendered with a sophistication worthy of the Dutch Golden Age. But their context, or rather their lack of context (as vase and circling fish, alike, float in a black void), creates a weightless, disorienting effect. The painting becomes a dynamically multilayered affair, as Kroll’s “real” fish are echoed in two koi that swim along the curved blue surface of the vase.

Artifice takes a different form in the oil-on-panel “Hummingbird and Butterfly.” Its unassuming title asks you to ignore the obvious: that the bird and insect (plus one bright blue egg) are perched precariously on a bare branch that is balanced, in turn, across the narrow mouth of an elegant vase. These creatures may be rendered in photorealistic detail, but they’ve been staged in a way that flouts all notions of naturalism. As for the vase, it explores an entirely different visual world, centered on a female nude reclining on her side, with a dim forested landscape at sunset beyond her.

In a number of paintings, the natural objects of the title are lined up so tidily that they lose their wild character. And sometimes Kroll gets even more whimsical. In “Landscape with Fifteen Eggs,” he balances a speckled egg on two other eggs, with a butterfly perched on top.

It’s an oddly persuasive “reality” that could exist only in paint.

What is Kroll up to here?

On his website (www.davidkroll.com), he writes: “My paintings explore the paradoxical relationship between human culture and the natural world. … It is not my intention to create an accurate depiction of a particular creature or habitat, but to create an invented, imaginary moment touching upon man’s complicated, perplexing relationship with nature.”

A human hand seems always to be just “offstage” in these paintings, ready to insert a vase or introduce a little more symmetry to the picture, as needed.

The results couldn’t be more elegant, beguiling or mysterious.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com