The Flower Question at Birch Contemporary

Flowers, with their wide-ranging chromatic potential and naturally occurring fragrant properties, act as cultural signifiers. When gifted (either singularly or in a bouquet), flowers suggest a level of reverence and admiration towards the receiver; similarly, they engender particularly dainty and feminine associations with their effortless beauty and naturalism. Within the arts, flowers have been taken as subject matter to a variety of artists and contextual concerns beyond any girlish or romantic connotations. Whether conceived as a covert signifier of mortality in early modern Flemish and Netherlandish vanitas imagery, or subjected to partial abstraction through Monet’s Impressionist studies on vision, florae have provided a wealth of inspiration for artists. Birch Contemporary’s latest exhibition Martin Golland and Sean Stewart: The Flower Question sees the two artists manipulating their source material to fit their particular theoretical interests.

Installation view

Martin Golland’s broadly painted, semi-abstract works centres around a narrative of a vacant theater stage. Once the heavy curtains have been drawn, the actors take their customary bow as the crowd cheers in elation and are gifted bouquets while single flowers are tossed toward the stage as a gesture of respect. Golland’s work imagines the flowers that remain in the desolate auditorium once the spectacle has finished, as they are swept up and disregarded from the memory and experience of the performance. The paintings are placed in ambiguous settings, allowing the vague appearance of the forgotten subject matter to take precedence. Furthermore, Golland’s work speaks to the ritual and symbolism of celebration as embodied by the flower. 

Martin Golland, Folie, 2015, acrylic and oil on linen, 20″ × 16″. Image courtesy of Birch Contemporary

Martin Golland, Dressing Roses, 2015, oil on canvas, 16″ × 16″.  Image courtesy of Birch Contemporary

In contrast to Golland’s emblematic work, Sean Stewart obliterates the form and image of florae and foliage in pure abstraction. Rendered in a thick and tactile impasto, Stewart’s subject matter appears as impressions in an ominous and muddy terrain, staining the earthy and rough settings with faded yellows, oranges, and other contrasting hues. The imprints appear to be run-over, resulting in a faint and formless smudge of a once-living botanical entity. 

Sean Stewart, Flowers 16, 2016, acrylic, oil, cement, cold wax on linen over wood, 16″ × 12″.  Image courtesy of Birch Contemporary

Sean Stewart, Flowers 12, 2016, acrylic, oil on linen over wood, 12″ × 9″.  Image courtesy of Birch Contemporary

Stewart and Golland produce a sense of aesthetic and contextual heterogeneity within the seamless white walls of the gallery space, exploring universal themes of remembrance, tradition, temporality and materiality within their modestly scaled canvases.

David Saric

*Exhibition information: Martin Golland and Sean Stewart: The Flower Question, February 6 – March 5, 2016, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed–Fri 10 am – 6 pm, Sat 11 am – 5 pm.


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