Wildflowers in Concrete Jungles: Flora and Fauna at the Surrey Art Gallery


Aganetha Dyck and Richard Dyck, Hive Scan 14 (2001–03), chromogenic print, 104.2 x 78.2 cm; image: 101.6 x 76 cm. NGC

Flora and Fauna: 400 Years of Artists Inspired by Nature is now on view at the Surrey Art Gallery in British Columbia.

Exploring how Nature — in all its richness and diversity — has served as the artist’s muse through the centuries, this exhibition of 76 works from the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection includes paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and crafted objects.

“I think everyone can identify with this exhibition,” says Ann Thomas, NGC Curator of Photographs and co-curator of the show. “Unless they grew up in an entirely urban environment and are afraid of the chaos of the natural environment, most people, on a primal level, connect with what they see out there, whether the images they are looking at are of close-ups of mushrooms, birds, and flowers or butterflies and trees.”

“We have 400 years of examples of how artists have treated the subject,” adds Thomas. “This exhibition shows that we are still responding to Nature, even if today most of us are living in concrete jungles.”

Along with NGC Associate Curator of Photographs, Andrea Kunard, Thomas came up with the idea for the exhibition after visiting the studio of Ottawa-based artist Lorraine Gilbert. While there, Thomas and Kunard saw Gilbert’s work LeBreton Flats (2010), a large inkjet composite print on canvas, depicting wildflowers growing in an urban setting. The idea that artists working today continue to be inspired by the same subject matter as artists working four centuries ago prompted the curators to organize a multifaceted exhibition, involving several curatorial departments and various artistic media, to demonstrate the strength and depth of the NGC’s permanent collection.

“Gilbert presents a panoramic view of a natural site in an urban setting, where we see plants and nature flourishing in a cityscape,” says Kunard. “She has taken a scientific approach to this work by collecting samples and studying them for her compositions, although other artists in the exhibition take different approaches to Nature.” 

Kunard points to Lucian Freud’s etching Garden in Winter (1997–1999), which reveals a side of the artist that visitors may not be familiar with. “Most think of Freud as a figurative painter whose works are intensely psychological, using the human figure,” Kunard says. “Here, Freud uses Nature as a retreat — as a way to get away from people that he finds too intense. He wants to move into another realm, and Nature is the vehicle through which he does this.”

Although the Surrey Art Gallery is an institution with a focus on contemporary art, Jordan Strom, Surrey’s Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, says that the mix of contemporary art and historical works across a range of mediums was a key factor in his decision to bring Flora and Fauna to B.C.

“We are a contemporary art gallery, but we do bring in historical shows that tie into the contemporary context,” he says. “We were interested in the fact that this exhibition has a strong component of contemporary work as well.”

Another attraction was the focus on Nature. Strom notes that 35% of the land in Surrey is agricultural, and that there are more than 2,000 hectares of parkland and greenbelt throughout the city. With Surrey’s rapid growth, the conflict between spreading urbanization and the maintaining the natural environment has become an issue that has captivated the local population.

“We are in this pretty spectacular setting between the coastal landscape and the sprawling forest, with Boundary Bay on one side, and the Fraser River on the other. It’s an incredible landscape, and many residents are very sensitive to that context,” says Strom.

Flora and Fauna: 400 Years of Artists Inspired by Nature is on view at the Surrey Art Gallery in Surrey, British Columbia until December 14, 2014. For more information, please click here.

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