An art exhibit examining environmental degradation, industrialization, and their effects on our perception of natural space
By Olivia Hallett
The latest exhibit at Dawson's Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery, entitled Estranged Spaces, is a collection of twelve oil paintings by Quebec artists that are connected by their shared themes of nature and the artificiality of industrialization. They criticize the domination our society has imposed on the natural world, offering the viewer glimpses of nature's lush vibrancy but contrasting it against lifeless and purely functional human-made spaces. The natural world is desperately resisting the looming threat of industrialization in an era that is hellbent on destroying it. This era, the central theme of the exhibit, is the Anthropocene. Petro Psillos, one of the featured artists and a Dawson alumnus, defines Anthropocene as "the geological era when human traces will always be visible from now on". "We can never get rid of all the plastic around the world, all the bad things we've done to the planet," he says. "It's ingrained forever." It is this tragic yet unavoidable fact that brings the twelve paintings, and their different approaches to the alienation of our natural environment, together.
The most dramatic works in the collection are those by Psillos, who challenges himself by working with neon colours: bright pinks, greens, and reds make his images leap off the wall. Inspired by the movie theatre in which he works, he paints recognizable yet somehow alien scenery of rooms that serve a purpose to society, but have a tangible lack of human presence. The colours breathe life into the empty spaces they depict, yet simultaneously create a sensation of disconnect with the technological, as they do not quite correspond to the subjects of the painting. Human-made spaces, without the presence of the humans themselves, feel empty and uncomfortable, in contrast to spaces in nature, which – like the vibrant colours of Psillos' paintings – have a life of their own.
Sonya Kertesz's work focuses more on natural spaces, untouched by humanity. Both of her featured paintings depict marine life: clusters of lush anemones and rugged coral towers evoke the thriving beauty of the underwater world. However, these living structures stand alone in their environments, as Kertesz paints them with empty backgrounds of neutral, lifeless colours. The sea creatures, bursting with life and almost resembling human organs with their pink and red hues, are thrown into contrast with their bleak surroundings, suggesting that they have been removed from where they truly belong and reminding us of the very real threat our society poses to sea life and coral reefs.
An approach that leans toward fantasy rather than realism is seen in Constantinos Giannousis' paintings. Giannousis uses motifs from nature to depict abstract yet familiar scenes, representing surreal fusions of the geometric concreteness of human-made spaces and the organic forms of the natural world. His works depict the solidity of human constructions and the ever-changing world of nature together as a unified space, but the artificial constructions dominate: the centre of both paintings is void of natural elements, pushing night sky and green foliage to the side as empty artificiality occupies the majority of the painted world.
Alexanne Dunn's work is inspired by the Quebec town of Thetford Mines, a town founded on asbestos mining and surrounded to this day by abandoned quarries and piles of excavated rock. It is these elements that Dunn depicts most prominently in her paintings; lush strokes of green and pink paint stand alongside expanses of grey and outlines of quarries, showing nature's determination to reconcile itself with industrialization and its attempts to heal the scars of long ago human activity. The area's natural landscape was changed forever by mining, just as the town itself – and society as a whole – was changed by the harms brought about by industrialization, of which asbestos is a powerful symbol. The community, and the environment around it, resisted destruction, but are forever altered by the additions brought about by industrial society.
A slightly more optimistic viewpoint is offered by Sylvia Trotter Ewens, whose true-to-life depictions of nature are the centre of her paintings. These images are still affected by human constructs, but the two coexist; a lush garden thrives behind the bars of a greenhouse window, and potted plants remain standing in a scene resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. Our society restricts and controls nature, but nature remains separate from the artificial world alongside it despite the looming tension between them. Human intervention may one day suffocate nature entirely, but not yet.
These five painters beautifully capture our complex notions of the natural environment's struggle against the imposition of an increasingly artificial and industrial culture. As they paint dystopic scenes of alienation, surrealism, and devastation, they encapsulate our generation's anxieties about the future of our planet, as well as our disillusionment with the direction humanity is taking. Their message is a call to action, visible in both the emphasis on the uniqueness and vivacity of nature and in the bleakness of the alternative.