Belgravia Gallery - Breath of Nature Exhibition
American landscape artist Susan Swartz exhibits 'Breath of Nature' at Belgravia Gallery in London October- November 2012. The body of mostly abstract work reflects Swartz' reverence for the natural world and commitment to environmental responsibility.
Belgravia Gallery, Mayfair, London
October 22 - November 24, 2012
Following her exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, The Carlyle in New York, Art Palm Beach and The Naples International Art & Antiques Fair, Susan Swartz had her first exhibition in London at Belgravia Gallery from October 22 - November 24, 2012. The body of work reflected Swartz' fierce reverence for the natural world and aimed to provoke viewers into taking action to preserve it.
Anna Hunter, the Managing Director of Belgravia Gallery remarked, "Susan Swartz is a rare individual who has found a way to use her particular talent to both express creativity and passion, and at the same time make a real difference in our society."
A landscape painter for the past 40 years, Swartz's decade long struggle with two environmentally related illnesses changed her life-focus. Challenged first by mercury deposits, likely from poisoned fish she ate, and then by the effects of Lyme disease in her joints, Swartz was slowly paralyzed and literally unable to hold a paint brush.
"For long periods I could only paint with my eyes," recalled Swartz. "Fortunately, over time, I got the care that allowed me to stand before my canvases with new strength and inspiration. I asked myself how I could use my gifts as an artist to capture all of nature's glory and at the same time embed a sense of urgency and messaging in my artwork."
Swartz' artwork changed as dramatically as her lifestyle and outlook. She left the comforts of realism for increasingly abstract painting. The collection at Belgravia Gallery includes some of her most abstract pieces to-date. "My relationship with the environment is more complex now," explained Swartz. "The Belgravia paintings reflect this complexity with a more conceptual approach that demands viewers question their own relationships with the natural world."
Robert F. Kennedy. Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance, and Louie Psihoyos, Director of The Cove and Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservations Society, joined Swartz on November 7th, 2012 at Belgravia for a talk "A Shared Passion for Environmental Campaigning."
Belgravia Gallery, located in the heart of London's Mayfair art district, represents a select group of international painters, sculptors and photographers. Founded in 1986, Ms. Hunter also represents the lithographs of HRH The Prince of Wales, for the benefit of his Charitable Foundation, and the work of Nelson Mandela.
Forward to BREATH OF NATURE Catalogue
By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
President, Waterkeeper Alliance
I have long been fascinated by the powerful connection between art and the environment—both define us as a people. Standing in a riverbed deep within the walls of a canyon or at the helm of a boat contemplating the vastness of our oceans, I try to imagine how an artist chooses color and finds form, and I am humbled. The outer world of nature and the interpretive world of art both insist that we transcend our narrow self-interest and see beyond what is right in front of us. Artists seek universal truths and help us form a community that responds to these truths and not to rhetoric or partisanship. The natural world reminds us how we are all connected, not by geography, but by river tributaries and wind patterns and fault lines. We depend on each other and also depend on the stewardship of the natural world. For it provides our lifeblood: clean air and water.
Susan Swartz and I met over a shared commitment to use whatever resources are available to us to protect our air and waterways. She deploys her paintbrush and I deploy the law. She finances social documentaries to raise awareness and I do public speaking. Susan, Louie Psihoyos and I worked together for the first time on a film called Mercury Rising that Susan and her husband produced. At the time, Susan had mercury poisoning at the highest levels. We were litigating international coal polluters and calling for class action suits against companies and countries because of the growing data connecting mercury in our sea levels and mercury poisoning, asthma and autism and the air we breathe. Susan's numbers were in the triple digits. When she was at her most sick, she could not even pick up a paintbrush, her hand frozen like a lobster claw. Still she continued to dream in color and imagine a world as it was intended—beautiful, mysterious, chaotic in color and design. When she could not paint, she focused on her recovery and even harder on how to protect other humans and the environment from further similar harm. She called upon doctors, scientists and environmentalists and made us connect the dots between environmental illnesses and increasing levels of fossil fuel contaminants entering our air, water and food supply.
We have partnered ever since. Once Susan was able to paint again, there was a new ferocity to her work. A restlessness, a fervor, a wildly imagined world that invites all of our sensibilities to save what is God-given. Early this year, she participated in ArtForWater (the Waterkeeper Alliance's celebratory auction for the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act) and her support for our work litigating polluters internationally and in America has been steadfast and unequivocal. I am proud to call Susan a friend of Waterkeeper, and even more grateful to have her as a friend of my family.
Forward to BREATH OF NATURE Catalogue
By Louie Psihoyos
Director, The Cove
Executive Director, Oceananic Preservation Society
If the history of the Earth were laid out on a clock, we humans would not appear until a minute before midnight as the writer Carl Sagan so aptly analogized in Cosmos. Despite our brevity on this planet, the impact of humankind has been disproportionately profound.
As we advance through time, we leave behind palpable traces of ourselves and our presence here. Long after we are gone, we will remain—for better or worse—in our forests, in our skies, in our oceans. A record of humanity's brief but impactful history is evident in our art; the most enduring works offering meaningful connection even centuries after their creation.
Before I was a filmmaker, I was a photographer and an avid diver. I am still both of these things, but it is in my role as a filmmaker that I see the most potential to share my concerns for our planet, especially that of our oceans. Susan Swartz approaches her canvases with the same compulsion. I wield a camera and a microphone, while she brandishes a brush and a palette knife.
As an artist, Susan spent years painting the grandeur and serenity of the natural world. When she became desperately ill with environmentally-bred diseases, Susan saw the fragility of nature. So too for me. As a photographer for National Geographic I was able to catalogue the beauty of our planet for two decades. As a diver for that same period of time, I was able to bear witness to its degradation.
It is from this perspective that I, along with a close group of like-minded activists, formed the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS). Nobody could have predicted the success of our first endeavor, the Academy Awardâ winning film The Cove, but there was never any question of its importance. Susan saw the truth in our story right away, and became a champion of OPS and a supporter of our films.
Our next project is exponentially more ambitious. Since the dawn of the industrial age, the natural world has slowly degraded at our hands. This tragedy, while seemingly inconceivable in scale, is not inexplicable. We are in the midst of a desperately real mass species extinction being driven by humankind. We are losing species of plants and animals faster than we are able to catalogue their existence, and nowhere is this disaster more evident than in our oceans.
Our job is two-fold. Just like Susan, we believe it is essential that we educate the world's communities about the dire state of not just our oceans, but of our entire planet. And, we believe it is imperative that we inspire them to do something about it, in a big way.
For me as with Susan, the line between environmentalist and artist is blurred. We at OPS are dedicated storytellers, but we will never lose sight of the paramount importance of the story we are telling. We are lovers of our planet and experts of our craft. We hope you will join us in revering and respecting the complex, colorful, unpredictable natural world that Susan brings to life in her paintings.
Introduction to BREATH OF NATURE Catalogue
By Godfrey Barker
Art Critic and BBC Broadcaster
SUSAN SWARTZ is a talented American painter of nature. What, I ask challengingly, is left to say about landscape in the 21st century?
Landscape is not dead as an art subject in 2012. But it is surely close to exhausted. Mere imitation of nature went over to the camera around 1860. Paint has continued to imagine, fantasise and brilliantly lie--but landscape? The sublime, the picturesque, Impressionism, Expressionism, Romanticism, flattened perspectives, three dimensions, Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Richter, Hockney and Glenn Brown, it has all been done--hasn't it?
Susan Swartz, who lives opposite water in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts and forests and mountains in Park City, Utah, gives a strongly personal reply. She says she feels compelled to paint nature because she sees in it a divine hand and a transcendent beauty and a reason to be glad to be alive.
"Ten years ago I became quite ill and entered a desperate place in my soul. I had mercury poisoning and then Lyme's Disease" (an infection from deer and rodent ticks which when unrecognised attacks the nervous system and threatens life. Susan was too weak to hold a paintbrush).
"Because I could have been dead several times, because I had to fight to live, I have become a much stronger person. The illness made me look at life and nature in a new way. I did not, I do not feel depression; I do not take health for granted; I see life as a gift and a blessing and every morning that I get up and see the sun rise, I see the good that comes out of life. Happiness is a choice. The way I paint may symbolise the way I want to live."
That's why she turns to nature. She is also alarmed at the destruction of the planet and seeks to remind by a deliberate beauty in what she paints just what it is that we are demolishing. No oil slicks in her art, just beauty.
The artist's job is to look beyond the horizon and see what less visionary people do not see. What is Susan Swartz seeing that you and I might miss?
She began painting in the dense forests of Pennsylvania then Utah, the state of mountains, desert and weird rocks which look like dice rolled around by a giant hand. Awe and wonder rise easily there amid the magnificence of nature and Susan's art is one that appeals to the moral faculties and to feelings for the elemental and divine. She sees in nature "as it were a soul," in Van Gogh's words. Yet the soul in Susan Swartz's pictures evokes not only reverence and awe before Nature and a sense of the eternal but often feelings of fear and alarm – fear sometimes vague, sometimes explicit. A brooding mystery invades many of her works. Gerhard Richter decided in the 1950s and 60s that nature is a false friend with a smiling face; by flood, avalanche, lightning, ocean, famine and disease it convulses the lives of innocent people. Are there allusions to a darkness in nature in Susan Swartz's haunting landscapes too?
Susan denies it, and hers must be the last word.
But visibly in her art, many of her paintings in the last ten years have been strong on silence, on foreground space and on waiting, and in images like Summer Day, Red Vibrance, Purple Grandeur, Forest Edge and Amazing Grace their large abstract spaces have not been welcoming or inviting but unsettling and in some works unenterable. Paintings of aspen and birch trunks hint at surprise and fright behind; routinely they bar the viewer from further passage. Where the forest is seen from a distance in Harvest Passion and Golden Aspens II, bright sunlight hangs over ominous shadows within the trees where Hansel and Gretel would hesitate to venture by day, let alone by moonlight. In Vista there is a sense of imminent danger, in Nature's Grace and Forest Edge a foreboding. A violent acrylic blood red landscape is titled Morning Calm by Susan. It is anything but calm.
Those pictures, perhaps more related to the traumas of her illness than she recognises, are behind her. The 2011-12 new works on exhibition this month at Belgravia Gallery are more abstract, more joyful and to my eye as strong anything since what seem to me her masterpieces, Afterglow and Crimson Reflections (2007). A group called Winter Hush is inspired not by America but by snow at Knole in Kent.
Her visual tricks continue. She uses spaces, barriers and dislocations to create her effects. She unhesitatingly distorts what the viewer truly sees and in doing so, disorients. One repeated disorientation is to her tree trunks, subtly tilted from the vertical to heighten the sense of an unreal world – a device she presumably learned from Winslow Homer.
"My pictures demand that viewers question their own relationships with the natural world," she asserts.
She is far from the only American landscaper to play these spatial tricks but her art is no imitation of nature or reheated Impressionist soup. She creates a natural world personal to her.
Perhaps that statement answers the question with which I begin. It is when an artist finds a personal language and the craft to create in paint what she thinks and dreams that she has truly found a voice – and found with it something fresh and individual to say on the ancient subjects of nature and landscape. I am impressed by all I see.