City Trees, Other Voices
City Trees, Other Voices marks the welcome return to the gallery stage of Vancouver artist Katherine Surridge after a decade-long hiatus during which she turned her considerable creative energies primarily to film-making and other pursuits. Still, pencil and paints were never far from hand and she continued to create small paintings of what she refers to as “spirit trees” that arose from a never-exhibited series of black and white works she produced during a brief period of study with New York artist Jennifer Bartlett in Santa Fe in 1993. When, finally, she tore sheets of rag paper and began a dedicated series of one hundred drawings of trees two years ago, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be followed with a major new series of related paintings.
In harmony with academic tradition, most of Surridge’s major painting series since the early 1980s have been presaged by an intense exploratory programme of drawing. As curator Peter Malkin pointed out in his insightful catalogue essay for Surridge’s 1985 exhibition of the Kartner Block Series at the Burnaby Art Gallery, however, these drawings are not so much formal studies for individual paintings as independent works in themselves. In the case of the current series, the delicate and exquisite preliminary drawings are not drawings of one hundred different trees; rather, they are the drawing of “tree” in one hundred different ways. Taken in their entirety they represent a preparatory exploration of “treeness” that informs the paintings in this exhibition without providing direct models for them.
Since childhood, trees have held major significance for Surridge. She says it is the trees outside her Kitsilano apartment window now that make it possible for her to live there. She hears their music night and day and in this is like many other West Coast artists who view nature as having spirit and a voice that it is the role of the artist to translate.
The trees that are the central images in this exhibition mark the first time that Surridge has explored this subject in depth. In earlier works, trees have generally appeared round and full-leafed, rather like lollipops on sticks in a constructed landscape. Here they are leafless and bare, stripped to their essential form. These trees are stand-ins for real people in Surridge’s life.
Each of the paintings in this series began with a highly-personal spontaneous poem about someone close to her – daughter, husband, mother, friend. Each tree represents a particular person; the poem about that person – or fragments of it – is written over the image of the tree. The words are repeatedly engraved in different ways and in different sizes on the surface of the painting until the poem and the tree merge, creating a connection between that which may be seen and that which must ultimately be heard.
This intentional connection between painting and script has appeared and reappeared in Surridge’s work since her earliest exhibited paintings, the Love Letters Series of 1979-80, a series of abstract paintings with indecipherable words and fragments of sentences that has a particularly strong affinity with the paintings in the current exhibition. In other works such as the Tablet Series, created after she saw the Magna Carta in 1981, words are interchangeable with Surridge’s personal shorthand alphabet of symbols that fly across the surface of the picture plane like leaves in the wind. Both literal and symbolic scripts create movement, emotion, and a voice for the painting. The use of these scripts is similar to automatic writing as in the “white writing” of Mark Tobey, the word-form paintings of Jack Wise or the symbolic visual language of Paul Klee, all of whom have influenced Surridge’s work.
City Trees, Other Voices is the product of a mature vision, a mature craftsmanship, and a mature understanding of what is important to this artist at this time in her life. It is the strongest possible evidence of a renewed vigour and passion for her chosen creative path and the promise of that yet to come.
July 21, 2008