Girl, interrupted

Cape Town artist Claudia Gurwitz’s latest body of work, Interrupted, on show at the AVA Gallery from 2 June, is an uncomfortable look at the current disconnect between nature and humanity. We ask her why.

Claudia Gurwitz

With paintings in collections as far afield as Nando’s in the United Kingdom and the Qasar al Sarab Hotel in Abu Dhabi, Claudia Gurwitz is a South African artist whose contemporary interpretations of botanical painting have global appeal. The universality of her subject matter – ‘micro-landscapes’ as she terms them – is that it is so much more than simply paintings of plants. Her works address harmony, rhythm and vitality. So when such subtle balances shift in the natural world, it’s expected that Claudia’s sharp eye and painter’s intuition would detect such changes.

What are the concepts you’re addressing in your new body of work?

As organic beings in this world, we are intrinsically part of our natural world. While humanity has felt off-centre since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are having to find new ways of navigating this altered reality, of engaging with each other and with our environment. While we feel a disconnect, our environment, in turn, feels out of sync. My Interrupted series alludes to a subtly distorted perspective of natural form, reflective of a disturbed environment.

Do you consider these paintings an exorcism of personal anxieties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic?

Through my painting I have always experienced the intrinsic unity that pervades nature. This gives me a sense that we live in a beautiful and orderly world. During the pandemic, while being outdoors still provides me with some sense of grounding, I deeply feel the unease that now shapes our reality and environment. While these paintings express our disconnected reality, I also find a surprising beauty in their distortion. Perhaps this alternate beauty can inspire an acceptance of where we are at, of finding a positive in this new normal.

There’s a greater sense of visual impenetrability in these works than in previous paintings of yours. How does this connect to the themes of your exhibition?

This series of paintings was born during SA’s lockdown and explores interrupted plant imagery – a new direction for me, one that stems from the feeling of collective disharmony that disturbs our existence during the COVID-19 pandemic. I express this by deconstructing, cropping and isolating my subject matter. I further reassemble and realign this imagery in fragments. These subtly uncomfortable combinations of reconstructed plant matter disjoin these vital structures, redefining my plant paintings. In this way I create a revised hyper-real landscape that is slightly unhinged.

To what extent do you feel the disturbed natural world and its disconnect with humanity is about COVID-19, and how much of it connects more with climate change?

Throughout our lives our world experiences political, economic and environmental fluctuations. These have a significant effect on people and nature. While climate change has in some ways created a more positive awareness and a sense of responsibility, COVID-19 seems to have had a severe and unexpected emotional impact on our collective psyche and, in turn, our experience of engaging in the world on all levels.

Your new works are of a larger scale than you’ve previously worked at. What changes for you in working to this scale?

I think that the overwhelming effect of COVID-19 on our psyches warranted a larger experience and expression of my work. The larger canvases, depicting awe-inspiring structures, surround the viewer. At this scale, I am able to further expose the texture, the movement and the intricate detail of form.

What particular plant species have you focused on in these paintings?

Rather than focus on a specific species, I am drawn towards various plant forms which I have chosen for their structure, strength, texture and movement. 

Name a positive for you about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finding my strength and resilience on this unchartered course.

Does your interest in plants extend to gardening?

While I love the garden, and find solace in the outdoors, I don’t have green fingers. My garden doesn’t extend beyond succulents, which carry a strong life force of their own – they can mostly look after themselves!

Name a plant that constantly intrigues you.

I am drawn towards the unremarkable things in nature, a pinecone or a burnt plant carcass. I also love photographing random plant matter, which I later explore on my canvases.

Is there a plant you’ve not yet painted that you’d like to?

A wide variety of remarkable seedpods. I love delving into the unique, sacred geometry of these forms.

Do you listen to music whilst you work?

I tend to jump between radio stations, depending on my mood. I like to know what is going on in the world and to listen to talk radio. I mix this up with contemporary and nostalgic music.

Name your favourite art gallery or museum.

The Tate Modern in London. I love the scale, contemporary feel and freshness of this space.

Name a favourite botanical artist.

Maria Sibylla Merian. 

What local corporate art collection would you like to see purchase one of your paintings?

Zeitz MOCAA.

If you could have a conversation-heavy dinner with any artist living or dead, who would you choose, and why?

Georgia O’Keeffe. I love her freedom of expression and celebration of female energy. In my own painting I explore the unique, underlying energy which each plant has to offer; I expose its essence.  O’Keeffe’s beautifully captured vitality of natural form inspires me. 

Interrupted opens at the Association For Visual Arts Gallery on 2 June and runs until 8 July 2021. |

WORDS: Martin Jacobs
PRODUCTION: Martin Jacobs