Surrey Art Gallery's Flora and Fauna is filled with surprises

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      At the Surrey Art Gallery to December 14

      Flora and Fauna is filled with surprises—including its reluctance to advertise what it’s really about.

      According to the show’s media release and introductory panel, it examines how “painters, printmakers, photographers, and craftspeople have been inspired by nature over the centuries”. Inspiration: that’s an oddly romantic notion.

      What this show really reveals is the shifting ways in which culture constructs an idea of nature.

      Another surprise is that the flora definitely predominates while the fauna is sparse and mostly of the insectival variety—disappointing if you were hoping for images of cute and furry or large and noble woodland creatures. But never mind: Flora and Fauna is an engrossing show, replete with visual delights.

      Organized by the National Gallery of Canada, mostly from its own collections, the 74 works on view at the Surrey Art Gallery range from a 16th-century Indian miniature painting by an unknown artist to a big, astounding, 21st-century digital photomontage by Ottawa-based Lorraine Gilbert (known indeed).

      The show is a kind of mini-survey of the recurrence of nature-based themes in art, such as gardens, with all their attendant symbolism and their revelations about the human impulse to tame, order, and enclose troublesome nature. Flora and Fauna also (subtextually) addresses what landscapes, still-lifes, and botanical illustrations reveal about European exploration and colonization and the Age of Enlightenment’s impulse to classify and control the natural world.

      There are 17th-century etchings of butterflies, moths and beetles by Wenzel Hollar, mid-19th-century daguerreotypes of people posed in garden settings by Hermann Carl Eduard Biewend, and a (rather lonely) Victorian-era, floral-themed ceramic tile by William De Morgan. And there’s a pale and muted, circa-1930 oil painting of a riverside park by L.L. FitzGerald. Titled Dead Trees, it is a study of twisted and truncated forms, an image that seems to have fallen off the other side of assertion. In contrast, Bruno Bobak’s circa-1960 pastel drawing of a field of poppies bursts with saturated hues and mark-making energy. Not that we would say that Bobak’s landscape is “better” than FitzGerald’s; rather, it is more obviously invested in the mid-20th-century myth of the potent, modernist male artist.

      On another part of the life-energy plane, there’s a digital scan of the interior of a beehive, created in the early 2000s by Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck (who has made a distinctive career of “collaborating” with bees in the creation of her art) and her son Richard Dyck. In this image, bees crawl over the trespassing flatbed scanner, depositing bits of wax, honey, pollen, and propolis on the glass. They’re pissed off, we imagine, but otherwise healthy and unharmed. Healthier than bees exposed to…

      Two of the most powerful works in the show are large digital prints mimicking, with immense success, the still-life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Created by South African photo-artist Andrew Putter (in conjunction with a big team of experts), these sumptuous images focus on arrangements of flowers, plants, and seashells indigenous to the Cape Town area before the Europeans arrived. Titled Hottentots Holland: Flora Capensis 1 and 2, Putter’s still-lifes question the power dynamics between the colonizing Dutch and the native people of South Africa. They also sound a note of concern about the destruction of natural habitats.

      A delightful surprise here is Steven Shore’s series of colour photos of Claude Monet’s restored gardens in Giverny, France. They’re unexpected because you tend to associate Shore with the images that made his reputation: shots of seemingly banal urban subjects and billboard-littered landscapes taken on road trips across the United States in the 1970s.

      Another revelation (although probably not so much to Ontarians) is Henry A.C. Jackson’s gorgeous botanical drawings of mushrooms, made in the middle years of the 20th century. Brother of the more-famous A.Y. Jackson, Henry was a commercial artist and lithographer in Toronto who, in his spare time, explored local fields and forests, making the most beautiful and accurate watercolour and aniline-dye drawings of fungi. Amanita muscaria never looked so good.

      Part of Flora and Fauna’s success is the way it reminds us of the human impulse to endow the natural world with meaning through art. We are an anomaly, part of nature and separate from nature, and a goodly portion of the art we make is an attempt to understand that discrepancy, that condition that provokes such existential unease.