Fairy Painting: David Surman

9 October - 6 November 2021

Sim Smith is delighted to present 'Fairy Painting', the second solo exhibition by British artist David Surman with the gallery, and the inaugural show at the gallery's new London space.

The exhibition responds to urgent concerns over our collective environmental precarity, and looks at the way in which ecology is understood. Surman paints with a profound understanding of how present-day issues such as the loss of biodiversity, climate change and pollution are inextricably linked with other struggles. Discrimination and violence against queer people, women and minority groups can be thought of as part of the larger crisis of the exploited and abused natural world, feminine nature ('mother nature') the mute victim to patriarchal forces.


While developing the exhibition Surman turned to and reinterpreted the genre of 'fairy painting', popular  in Victorian England, that depicted fairies and other supernatural subjects drawn from myth and legend. He observed the ecological dimension to the genre; as the countryside was disappearing, fairy painting reimagined with hypernatural intensity. These new fairy paintings are not sentimental distractions, but resonant statements on nature today.


The queer ecological potential of the term 'fairy painting' and its history underpin the exhibition. Surman addresses the deep need to reconnect with and reintegrate nature into our social understanding, a concern highlighted by living and working through rolling lockdowns and social distancing in a city. In this new body of work he looks back to his childhood in Devon and the Scottish Highlands when his first impressions of nature and painting coincided with his queer coming of age.


Surman has pushed his distinctive painterly language to new lengths in order to present an original view on the mysteries and dilemmas connecting human society and the natural world. The paintings examine our relationship to the natural world and ask questions of our collective understanding. For Surman, painting offers an ever-evolving way of thinking through images, a spiritual enquiry, and a connection to the living world.

His works have long focussed on the animal or non-human world, and depicted a compassionate view of various creatures on canvas. In this exhibition, something has shifted, humans are present in some scenes and these paintings are looking squarely at our present moment with an uncanny sense of deep time. Surman's world in the midst of a pandemic has been a time of turning inward and questioning the purpose of painting.


Working across vast surfaces in acrylic on canvas, we see his world unfold. The heavy, wild and vital swathes of Surman's brush are still evident from his previous works, but this time they are juxtaposed against tiny, intricate gestures, small moments and unhurried movements, measured and deliberate.


"In these works, the painted mark becomes a sign for speed and scale: first fast then slow, first large then small. The experience is one of slowing, turning inward."


Mammoth paintings of wolves, river fish and trees create landscapes for contemplation, sites that wrap around us and transport us to somewhere metaphysical. The primal, mysterious nature of these works speaks to us from a spiritual dimension, a subconscious signal that cannot be explained or controlled. In this exhibition, Surman builds upon his interest in the complex narratives of our connection, conduct and place in the living world. He invites us to look rather than find, to ask questions about how to move forward in a crisis, in his words:  "...the theme becomes one of discovery through falling."


About the Artist

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. Fairy Painting is his second solo exhibition at the gallery.