'Infinite Beauty' exhibition explores artists fascination with nature opens 9 September at The Arc, Winchester
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'Infinite Beauty' exhibition explores artists fascination with nature opens 9 September at The Arc, Winchester
Exploring the way in which artists interact with natural materials, forms and phenomena: plants, animals, habitats and the wider landscape, Infinite Beauty features an eclectic mix of photography, painting, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture, helping us to take a fresh look at our relationship with nature.

WINCHESTER.- Infinite Beauty is a unique exhibition that investigates the enduring appeal of nature as a subject for leading contemporary artists. Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) promoted nature as an inexhaustible source of truth and beauty, and this exhibition demonstrates that for many contemporary artists this is still very much the case.

Exploring the way in which artists interact with natural materials, forms and phenomena: plants, animals, habitats and the wider landscape, Infinite Beauty features an eclectic mix of photography, painting, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture, helping us to take a fresh look at our relationship with nature.

Works by leading artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Chris Drury, Elisabeth Frink, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Maggi Hambling, Richard Long, Juliette Losq, Darren Almond and Dan Holdsworth will transport visitors from familiar everyday nature to the ends of the earth in the ice and snow of the Arctic and Antarctica.

The exhibition begins with a group of artists working in the mid-20th century, exploring abstraction, the surreal and the unsettling landscapes of Neo-Romanticism. These include the idiosyncratic approaches of John Minton, Harry Epworth Allen and Eliot Hodgkin. Allen once declared: “Nature is stimulating … subjects are to be found everywhere … Nature provides all the essentials at all times”. By removing detail, emphasising the rounded contours of hill and tree and distorting form and perspective, he created uniquely strange visions of the British landscape.

One of the key themes addressed by Infinite Beauty is nature’s relevance as a subject for art. Once romanticized as a source of truth and beauty, it was later disparaged as passé as art took on an ever more abstract and urban focus. Reclaimed by the land artists of the 1960s and 1970s, nature is once again a subject of critical importance as we face the prospect of ecological disaster caused by human activity.

There are new takes on the ‘delightful horror’ of sublime nature in the ominous basalt stacks of Emma Stibbon’s Reynisdrangar (2016), Maggi Hambling’s violently colourful Sunrise, Hadleigh, Suffolk (1989) and Dan Holdsworth’s contemplation of the rainforest and infinite expanse of the night sky from the series At the Edge of Space (2000).

There is also playfulness in Claude Lalanne's Choupatte (2012). As a young artist in Paris Lalanne met leading Surrealists including Magritte, Dali, Ernst and Man Ray. Her work transforms everyday nature into the fantastic through strange combinations, exemplified by Choupatte’s witty yet unsettling chicken/cabbage hybrid.

Other artists seek out the spirit of wild animals. Elisabeth Frink's small bronze Peregrine (1978) reflects her method of observing her subjects until she had a clear image in her mind and modelling from that memory, capturing the creature’s essence as an archetype for the species. Thomas Reichstein’s Adlergott (Eagle God) (2001) is a semi-abstracted bird form that he views as a ‘warrior for nature’, reflecting the awe and reverence in which eagles were held by many societies. Beatrice Forshall’s Bittern engraving (2012) captures the posture and character of a bird that was all but extinct in Britain just a few years ago. Two contrasting views of the king of beasts are seen in prints by Edward Bawden and Bernard Leach.

The plant kingdom is also represented in an eclectic range of interpretations. In Conqueror (2000), Wendy Taylor transforms the humble conker into a beautiful sculptural symbol of fertility and renewal. Chris Drury’ Poison Pie (2000) lists poisonous fungi and their effects on the human body in the form of the gills of a giant mushroom. Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient Sculpture (1963) was inspired by desert grasses blowing in the wind.

Creating art with natural materials is at the heart of several exhibits. Examples include Adam Buick’s Land Jar that literally embodies the Pembrokeshire landscape in the locally sourced clays and minerals and colours that reflect both land and sea. Paul Kenny’s Thinking of Beldberg (2002) emerged from the idea of making something beautiful from the most mundane materials, in this case seawater. Andy Goldsworthy’s Rained overnight, damp sand spread over the north side of a mulga tree, facing the midday sun, Mount Victor Station, South Australia, 22 July 1991 was the result of serendipity. As curator Steve Marshall explains:

“Goldsworthy describes his work as being driven by chance, intuition and instinct, in this case he absent-mindedly rubbed wet red sand on a tree and realised that it stuck. Having covered the whole tree he observed how a combination of bright sun and gathering storm clouds brought out the rich colours in sharp relief.”

One of the key works in the exhibition is Chris Drury’s Edge of Chaos (1999), this huge drawing was inspired by complexity theory, the idea that as things become more complicated, rather than descend into chaos, they form patterns. The work contrasts the flows of blood through the human heart and sap in a redwood tree with globe-spanning currents and winds, the names of which form the swirling patterns in the picture.

While Infinite Beauty celebrates the wonders of the natural world, it does so at a time when our planet and its ecosystems are in crisis. In Juliet Losq’s Widderschynnes (2014) an eerie urban edgeland is being overtaken by greenery. This might hint at nature’s powers of recovery but perhaps the humanoid head in David Mach’s self-destructive matchhead sculpture Head of a Faun can be seen as a reminder of our precarious relationship with our planet.

Curator Steve Marshall says: “We have been fortunate to draw together this unique exhibition through the generosity of a group of Hampshire-based collectors. Infinite Beauty showcases many remarkable works rarely seen in public. Its theme is perhaps one of the most important of the Anthropocene era in which we live. Through the imaginations of these artists we can look afresh at the amazing variety and beauty that nature provides, while marvelling at human creativity. Hopefully visitors will take away a message of hope from this inspirational combination.”

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