Nature meets culture in photographs by Marian Penner Bancroft and Mark Mizgala

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      Marian Penner Bancroft: Radial Systems
      At Republic Gallery until April 15

      Mark Mizgala: Shift
      At Art Rental and Sales at Vancouver Art Gallery until June 9

      The complex and sometimes barbed interface between nature and culture is addressed by two small exhibitions, on now as part of the expansive Capture Photography Festival. Marian Penner Bancroft’s Radial Systems, which includes nine C-prints and a video work, is at Republic Gallery, up two steep flights of stairs from Richards Street. Shift, Mark Mizgala’s show of ink-jet prints, is on view in the art rental and sales space, at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Both artists examine the ways human beings alter the natural world; they also touch on the social construction of nature.

      Penner Bancroft has used a macro lens to greatly enlarge the organic forms that are the subjects of her still photographs, imbuing them with luminous presence and wondrous detail. The natural objects she focuses on include seedpods, rosehips, tightly furled buds, a seashell, and a striated fossil whose shape resembles that of a human skull. All were found, she says in her statement, “on or near the ground and in the water”. A couple of months ago, when I first read a description of her show, I mistakenly thought that Penner Bancroft had encountered all these natural objects on the banks of the Fraser River. In fact, as her notes reveal, the Fraser River estuary is one of the subjects of her video. The still photos are based on findings from different gardens and beaches in Vancouver and Victoria and on Salt Spring Island. The parasol mushroom, whose intricately layered underside greets gallery visitors as they walk in the door, was discovered on the side of a road in Suffolk, U.K.

      The artist’s notes also inform us about the far-distant origins of the different plant and animal species she depicts, indicating ways in which human beings have cultivated aspects of nature and transported them around the globe over time. The subject of Japanese Lantern, a gorgeous image of a familiar reddish-orange seedpod, which seems to be lit from within, was found in a Kitsilano garden and is native to southern Europe, South Asia, and Japan, Penner Bancroft tells us. The open seedpod of Tibetan Tree Peony is found in Vancouver because seeds of the species were brought to the West in 1936 by a British officer stationed in Lhasa, Tibet.

      Penner Bancroft’s 22-minute video, Estuaries, was shot locally and at the mouth of the River Blythe (which runs through the English Midlands). It silently communicates the ways a Romantic view of nature has been infiltrated by, if not exactly the industrial sublime, then certainly industrial development. Penner Bancroft uses extreme beauty to convey troubling ideas.

      Mark Mizgala’s Shift (Tricycle) at the VAG art rental and sales space.

      Mizgala’s tightly art-directed series of colour photographs yearns for a future in which, according to the exhibition statement, “humanity and nature find greater harmony.” Each image consists of a consumer item that has been subtly infiltrated by plant material: a hairbrush sprouting a little cluster of evergreen needles, a child’s tricycle whose plastic streamers have been replaced by long strands of grass, a shiny metal napkin dispenser filled with large green leaves. One of the most appealing images here is of a high-top running shoe laced with a slender vine.

      Mizgala’s visual conceit is an arresting one, and is delivered with an ad man’s sense of colour, composition, and captivating design. I’m not sure, however, that the work entirely communicates the artist’s concerns about the catastrophic impacts of pollution and climate change on the natural world. Some of these images suggest not so much idealistic harmony as insidious displacement—although whether it’s nature displacing culture or the other way around is up to the viewer to decide.