This collection of 17 paintings (acrylic on paper) is a posthumous exhibition of works by scientist and artist Sylvia Mair. Like most exhibitions at this gallery, this exhibition does not come with didactic material/textual explanations of the works, but rather leaves it up to the viewer to form their own understanding and interpretations.
The collection is visually arresting, making skilful use of an earth tones palette to tell a story about Australian wildlife, human interference, and dire consequences. It presents a compelling convergence of contrasting imagery: earth and sky, cityscapes and nature, life and death, body and soul, present and future, reality and prophecy, drama and subtlety. The paintings are carefully arranged for visual impact by Stephen McLaughlan, eponymous owner of the Stephen McLaughlan Gallery. The non-chronological arrangement of the works adds richness and depth to the experience.
Every individual work in this collection contributes to the overarching theme, offering different angles on scenes from the present and future. A walk from one end of the gallery to the other provokes reflections on the pre-industrialized state of nature and the impact of the towering advancements of human activity on wildlife and marine life. The display on the main wall appears to be the prophetic peak in the story: haunting images of a future where the wildlife death toll metaphorically towers over the cityscapes built by men.
But it's not all doom and gloom. A sub-collection of portraits (of kangaroo, dog, echidna and man) provide visual and emotional relief without breaking away from the overall theme. The four portraits appear to depict each creature as individually valuable, and yet connected to each other, being made of the same substance and elements. A coloured shadow behind each creature – bigger than the creature itself – appears to symbolize the spirit of the creature not contained within its physical body.
The structures in some paintings appear to mirror each other, perhaps alluding to "before and after" situations. A notable example is Beneath 2, where man-made structures seem to have populated the surface of the earth, while trees and animals are shown reflected/inverted beneath the surface, perhaps signalling their parallel, stressed survival in hostile conditions. This concept is mirrored in Beneath 1, which shows the same structures on the same surface, but under a dark instead of a bright sky, and with wildlife buried as if in graves under the earth, faded and forgotten, instead of vibrant and alive.
Another parallel is found in the sub-collections Smoke Signal 1 & 2 and Cloud, and Remnants 1, 2 & 3. The former shows living wildlife and marine life enveloped in thick clouds of smoke, most likely signalling the threat of endangerment. The latter shows the same wildlife and marine life suspended in the air, not bound by clouds or smoke, but apparently lifeless, fossilised – a reminder of what has historically happened to other species.
Endangered Species is the fourth collection of works that Sylvia Mair has exhibited at Stephen McLaughlan Gallery since 2009. Her previous exhibitions at this gallery – Unnatural Hybrids (2009), Phone Cages (2011), and Bar Coding (2014) – explored similar themes, i.e. the interaction of wildlife and human activity, but using a variety of mediums and were vastly different visually.