Natural Motif: Lorraine Gilbert and Natasha Mazurka

Since 2004, the Ottawa Art Gallery has regularly presented exhibitions of contemporary art alongside historical works of the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art. For Natural Motif, Ottawa-based artists Lorraine Gilbert and Natasha Mazurka offer new works inspired by their choice of pieces from the Collection, and both look to the Group of Seven. Established in 1920, the Group created a new nationalistic art for Canada, rooted in the wilderness landscape and a Post-Impressionistic palette. Contemporary artists and critics have since complicated the Group’s idealism.

With her series Eagle's Nest (2012), Lorraine Gilbert looks to the Group’s legacy as a whole, focusing on the tension between the vast wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park and its adjacent town of Bancroft. In the large-scale photograph, she distinguishes certain areas by digitally smoothing their details, making them appear painterly, and pointing out that what we see as picturesque is often a deliberate, artistic choice. She also creates small landscape-portraits from these areas, and places them into frames from the Firestone family’s collection. The artist chooses the landscape, the collector chooses the art, and a legacy is created.

Like Gilbert’s manipulated photographs, Natasha Mazurka’s oil paintings examine the act of seeing nature. The Group drew on the vocabulary of decorative art movements such as Art Nouveau, and Mazurka excavates this hidden debt by extracting these curling forms from their paintings and anchoring them in her own works as graphic motifs.

Natasha Mazurka, Supple Syntax, 2012, oil on canvas, diptych, 81.3 x 101.6 cm, courtesy of the artist, photo : Matt Zambonin

For example, her painting Supple Syntax (2012) depicts the twisting forms of Arthur Lismer’s wind-blown trees in Georgian Bay Pines (1962). The presence of a spot-lit centre on her patterns elevates the influence of the decorative arts in the Group’s paintings by referring to the role of light as an iconographic symbol in art history associated with the divine.

These two bodies of work, though distinct, are rooted in uncovering the social, political and cultural motivations that influenced the Group’s artistic practice. Both Gilbert and Mazurka point out that the images and patterns of the natural world we observe have been chosen by the artist, framed for our consumption, and carry with them the weight of a selected history.

Catherine Sinclair, Curator