Sirens: David Surman

13 September - 26 October 2019

Sim Smith is delighted to present 'Sirens', the debut exhibition by British artist David Surman and the first solo presentation at the gallery.


A siren is an alarm call, a warning system to alert us. It is also a mythical creature, luring unwary sailors with hypnotic song to shipwreck on rocky shores.


The artist will present new works that peer into the non-human world. By rethinking the importance of art history to our anthropocentric worldview, Surman questions the role of animals in life and art. Through painting, drawing and film, Surman takes animal bodies as his subject, and considers the labour of nature in the shadow of our human lives; if animals could speak how would they speak of us?


In preparation for this show, Surman has immersed himself in the history and conventions of animal painting, drawing on paintings by Goya, Géricault, Maella and Watteau. People are no longer the protagonists in his reimagined art history. Instead animals are pulled to the forefront and transformed into monumental subjects. The traditionally less qualifiable moods of the animal are now seen in brightly coloured swathes, drips and splashes of expressive paint, or in intricate pen drawings full of movement.


Working across a variety of media, we see how Surman's thoughts on his subjects are explored and expanded. With each medium there is a change of attitude and rhythm. He works with a sense of choreography, and an exactness and knowledge in his method. Every piece is approached like a game, with rules to be both obeyed and broken. Although Surman works without a clear plan, he is highly conscious of the history of painting itself, and approaches each painting as a question to be posed in its own right.


With a wide-ranging set of influences at play, from the brushwork of the zen buddhist painters and post-war expressionism to the action painters and gutai, Surman practices a distinct painterly economy, creating works by minimal means that can be understood by everyone. They are animals drawn from the world but also the world of images -- in a film, on a greetings card or in a tapestry. They are familiar, unthreatening and ever present. They make us feel, they make us gentler and they make us lighter.


Together, the works build upon complex narratives about our connection, conduct and place in the living world. They alert us to our oversights, to our mistakes and restrictions and encourage a new way forward. They inspire a life that is lived with a heightened sense of enthusiasm, love and responsibility for the non-human world.



David Surman (b, 1981, Barnstaple) lives and works in London. He was born in the rural South West of England, and moved at an early age to the remote Scottish Highlands. There he apprenticed to the painter and mountaineer Rob Fairley, before moving to Wales to study animation at Newport Film School and later film at Warwick University. Though trained as a filmmaker, Surman has established himself through his distinctive paintings and works on paper over recent years. He has exhibited in London, Miami and New York. Sirens is his first solo exhibition at the gallery.