‘Natural Encounters’, Leeds Art Gallery Review

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Despite its span of 400 years, many of the pieces at Leeds Art Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Natural Encounters’ capture a very current mood in their meditation on the human relationship with nature. It’s timing as one of Leeds Art Gallery’s first exhibitions post-lockdown is perfect, with our appreciation of the natural world as an escape newly heightened, along with an awareness of the importance of such spaces for mental and physical health.

Entering the gallery is to be greeted by a green oasis in the shape of Sadé Mica’s ‘it teks time’ whose practise explores their navigation of the world as a queer person. Positioned to evoke a counsellor/patient set up, two chairs sit on live turf, still in flower, relocated from nearby North Yorkshire. They are accompanied by a series of recordings taken outside which re-enact previous conversations from counselling. It is their time in nature Mica praises in this work, describing how it gave them the space to refresh and reconnect in a way only previously possible in counselling. As the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic challenged many people’s mental health, Mica’s work encapsulates the sense of rootedness that can often be achieved in nature.

Image Credit: Leeds Art Gallery

Another two pieces exploring the human connection to nature are Helen Chadwick’s ‘Viral Landscapes’ and Bill Woodrow’s ‘Twin Tub with Beaver’. Chadwick evokes an unease in her panoramic photographs of Pembrokeshire’s coastal landscape which are overlaid with photos of her own cells from a cervical smear. The discomfort of being confronted with ourselves broken down to our elements is further enhanced by Chadwick’s repositioning of humans as a virus spreading across the landscape. Her work brings up questions about the shifting boundaries of humans and wild spaces, bringing to mind deforestation – an eerie reminder of the human threat to the world around. Also querying this fragile balance of human and natural is Woodrow who has crafted a beaver out of an old washing machine. The old dials and logos of machine still recognisable, it stands before the beaver who seems to explore it, two trophy objects of their day facing off – the beaver hunted to extinction in the UK and the washing machine, the 50’s must-have. 

Woodrow’s repurposing of found objects confronts us with the waste of our consumerist society but his satirical humour strikes a final good note, less pessimistic than Chadwick.

Not all works focus on the human with other artists choosing instead to focus on the physical, creating intricate studies of form and specimens. One of my personal favourites is by Chris Drury, whose giant ‘Medicine Wheel’ opposite the entrance commands attention in both its scale but also its detail. Made from his daily collection of objects over a year, and divided into twelve segments, Drury composes a giant calendar which maps his connection to both time and place, physically rooting him in a way many longed to be during lockdown. The therapeutic relief Drury recalls from this process of collecting and growing, is one many must relate to with a recent rise of people both foraging and growing their own food in recent months. Meanwhile, in their glass cabinet, Halima Cassell’s trio of clay sculptures appear more focused on the microscopic in their close study to both form and shape. Starting with blocks of clay, Cassell’s paring back reveals their inner workings of geometric patterns, animating them and transforming them into pieces reminiscent of seeds or molecular structures. The tactility of her work is a reminder of the joy many found on leaving their homes in lockdown and just being able to look and notice.

Not only approachable and entertaining thanks to the energy and colours many of the pieces bring, but Leeds have also been extremely successful in highlighting the various functions of nature and their social and political implications. This exhibition does a fantastic job of representing so many themes but may need several visits to fully digest in entirety.

Image Credit: Leeds Art Gallery