Monte Clark’s expansive new industrial space in the emerging art hub at the Great Northern Way campus is a fantastic context in which to view art. Despite its tractor factory origins, Clark has carved out an engaging gallery space that is conducive to the display of contemporary art, both intimately scaled and massive. The latest exhibition, which features a selection of new work by Tim Gardner — a recent addition to Clark’s stable of artists — is expertly installed and allows the viewer to get lost in the artist’s stunning depictions of the natural landscape. Gardner has made a name for himself for his impressively rendered photorealist watercolours that explore our changing relationship to nature as well as the photographic conventions we use to document these experiences, themes that are further investigated in this compelling new exhibition. Featuring a series of small watercolours paired with larger scale pastel works that all juxtapose a solitary figure with sublime natural vistas, Tim Gardner reveals the artist’s ongoing investigation of the contemporary masculine identity and its connection to the natural world.
Gardner’s watercolours are impressive for both their technical mastery—the medium doesn’t exactly lend itself to the precise, detailed imagery that is his signature—and for their disruption of conventional depictions of the landscape. While works like Figure with Full Moon, Kits Beach, 2013 and Ferry Scene with Summer Smoke, 2013, with their singular figures overwhelmed by the vast, transcendent seascapes, may initially appear to be in the Romantic tradition, Gardner, by having his figures face away from the viewer, complicates this reading. As we are unable to witness the figures’ expressions or reactions to the landscape, we are compelled to construct our own narratives for the pictures, our impressions coloured by our individual relationships to the natural world. It is unclear whether these figures are experiencing a moment of clarity as they look out towards the infinite or remain untouched by nature’s transcendent power. These works also reveal the inherent tension that exists between humans and the landscape as we continue to intervene and reconstruct the natural world. While in Figure with Full Moon, Kits Beach, the figure’s access to the ocean, mountains and moon is unfettered, in Ferry Scene with Summer Smoke a man-made guardrail separates the lone protagonist from the sea. Here Gardner reveals how our efforts to dominate and transform the landscape inevitably mediate our experience of it. Headstand further confounds viewers’ expectations; with his back to the grand mountain range, the figure’s pose, along with his attire, are unbefitting of his location and he seems almost oblivious to the scene around him.
Gardner changes scale and perspective in his series of oil pastels that render a single male—in awe-inspiring detail—amidst the landscape. Works such as Brian, Larry Bird Shirt, 2012 and Roy with Red Cup, 2012 feature males in contemporary garb in front of expansive untouched terrain. Unlike in the watercolours, here the figure dwarfs the natural world, distorting the power dynamic and referencing our subjugation of the landscape we inhabit. The protagonist in S with Vodka, 2012 has a drink in hand while looking out at the sea; with his back turned to the viewer, Gardner once again disrupts an easy reading of the scene. Dressed for leisure and enjoying an alcoholic beverage, the figure reveals how our experience of nature no longer requires that we give up any of the comforts of contemporary life.
Gardner’s impeccably rendered scenes are striking for both their execution and their subject matter. The fraught relationship between the landscape and contemporary culture, in which we simultaneously demand almost immediate access to nature while domesticating and dominating it to suit our ever-changing needs is powerfully explored. These evocative watercolours and pastel drawings force us to confront these realities and reveal the tensions that exist below the surface of our consumption of the natural world.