How a London shrub reflects on Moholy-Nagy and Malevich

ART by Gregory Beatty

Dagmara Genda: Beating The Bush
Sherwood Village Gallery
Until Nov. 4

Each May for five years now on Prairie Dog’s blog, editor Stephen Whitworth has done a “Foliage Report” where he takes a photo a day of the tree outside our office window on the mall as it buds and bursts into leaf. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, Steve’s “Foliage Report” is celebrated on the blog as a welcome harbinger of spring.

In her photo-based installation Beating the Bush at the Dunlop’s Sherwood Village Gallery, Polish-Canadian artist Dagmara Genda did Steve one better. During a recent residency in London (UK), she photographed the same laurel hedge in Regent’s Park for several months in a row. She even snagged a branch or two and photographed them indoors under tungsten lighting.

Genda did more than just post the images on a blog too. She processed and manipulated them on a computer and printed the resulting images on paper and vinyl. Then she cut up the former into leaf-shaped pieces and used them to create collage works, while the latter were employed as building blocks in larger-scale installations that run along the gallery’s walls, floor and one window.

There’s a prompt in the Dunlop’s publicity materials, but anyone with an art history background will recognize in the collages references to the early-20th-century art movements of Constructivism and Suprematism. Responding to the modernizing influences of science and technology, European artists such as László Moholy-Nagy and Kazimir Malevich created rigidly geometric and monochromatic art works that expressed ideas of utopianism and spiritual purity.

Genda said during an artist talk that she ultimately abandoned that path as she didn’t find it rewarding. For my part, though, I found the works quite intriguing.

In 2008, Genda did a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. While there, she was struck by the surreal quality of the interaction park visitors had with the natural landscape — or rather, what passed for the natural landscape, as even though parks such as Banff do offer a taste of raw wilderness, the exposure that occurs is still highly mediated and monitored by park authorities.

With urban parks such as Regent’s in central London, the engagement that occurs with “nature” is even more artificial. As Genda explained in her talk, the laurel hedge is ubiquitous in England, and is used to demarcate boundaries between adjacent land-holdings and as decorative topiary in parks.

The human compulsion to tame nature and bend it to our will is a defining characteristic of the modernist age, so Genda’s collages are very much in the spirit of Suprematism and Constructivism. Some of the collages even have pencil marks on them, emphasizing to viewers the precision and planning that went into their creation.

From a distance, the works read as paintings. It’s only when you draw close that you realize that the intersecting rectangles, triangles and other shapes are collaged (quite painstakingly, I imagine) from tiny cut-out leaves.

Because Genda photographed the hedge at different times of day, and in varying light conditions from spring through summer to fall, the leaves are not strictly monochromatic. Instead, they range in hue from greenish-yellow to dark green. Still, they do evoke the scaled-down palette favoured by Malevich, Moholy-Nagy and their early modernist colleagues.

The vinyl works are composed of the same leafy source material, but are inspired by a different conceptual focus. Superficially, they recall large-scale landscape paintings (or murals/panoramas — and maybe even wallpaper) where we bring depictions of nature indoors for our contemplation and aesthetic pleasure.

When artists first started to rebel against realism in the mid-19th century, one of the conventions they sought to subvert was the idea of painting as a window to nature. Genda alludes to this through the installation of one vinyl work on a window looking in on the gallery from the library’s front entrance.

Two other vinyl works are inside the gallery. Rather than mimic the traditional horizontal format of a landscape painting, they’re installed at odd angles, so that they extend down the wall and out onto the floor.

The result in one case is a geometric U-shape that cuts off a small corner of the gallery, while the other vinyl work narrows steadily as it runs along the floor and up the wall. To me, it recalls a leafy representation of a vanishing point, which is another convention of realist painting used by artists to create the illusion of 3-D space.

Like the laurel hedges in Regent’s Park, Genda’s vinyl hedges demarcate space in the gallery. At the opening, some people were reluctant to step on the vinyl, and instead would hop over at the narrowest point to view works on the other side in greater detail. Walking on the work is permitted, though, so that’s another twist Genda throws at viewers as typically in galleries you’re not allowed to touch, let alone walk, on the art.

With fall approaching, and our own deciduous trees and shrubs poised to shed their leaves, Beating the Bush offers plenty of visual pleasure while also raising some interesting points about how we depict and interact with nature in our increasingly urban world.