Myfanwy MacLeod is best known for her irreverent artworks that often explore the overlapping and intersecting of pop culture, folklore, traditions and histories. Her practice examines how perceptions of “high” and “low” culture are interpreted through themes of gender, privilege and value and ranges from museum and gallery exhibitions through to celebrated permanent and temporary works in the public realm. Her interest in how an image or object can be transformed to change its meaning through shifts in scale or materiality for example, and importantly the context of indoors or out playing a specific role within her deliberations is the starting point for her first solo exhibition in the UK. MacLeod examines this dialogue as a way to visually communicate the shift of ideas that occurs through process, materiality, scale and context. To this end and as a means to illustrate this proposition, a selection of recent works is presented alongside maquettes and visual documentation for public commissions.

Central to the exhibition is a sequence of framed watercolours that were used in 2018 as the basis for a public artwork, Neighbours, a series of large-scale posters displayed at twenty sites around the City of Vancouver corresponding with two major events in Canada. Firstly, in 2018 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act established between Canada and the US. One of the most successful conservation laws in North American history is now currently under review by American Congress. Coinciding with the anniversary of this major achievement by Canada in protecting species and its consequent positive environmental impact, was the International Ornithological Congress (founded in 1884) which takes place every four years and in 2018 convened in Vancouver from August 19-26. The second event was the celebrated re-installation of MacLeod’s acclaimed commission The Birds (2010), a large-scale public sculpture of two house sparrows located in the Olympic Plaza, Vancouver.

Sharing content therefore and immediately following on from this global environmental conference as context, MacLeod’s twelve watercolour drawings depict various birds protected by the treaty that annually migrate from all over the world to live and breed in Canada and incorporates different species gathered together into one diverse flock. Not unlike the ‘impossible bouquet’—a concept that emerged in Dutch still life painting in the 17th century where flowers were visually brought together from different seasons and geographic regions—this assemblage of birds is made up of a varied, polyglot group. Those depicted include House Sparrow, Common Nightingale, Northern Goshawk, Sandhill Crane, Northern Raven and the Blue Footed Booby, amongst others. Through such a considered selection, MacLeod represents the national birds from countries which make up Canadian communities thus mirroring the physical and cultural identities of the inhabitants of the country.

Alongside these original watercolours is documentation of the large-scale photographic public works. These posters combine the original, delicate drawings of the birds with a Latin text of their species and popular name thereby evoking the layout of typical ornithological text books and field guides. A particular visual reference is the 1912 book, “Color Key to North American Birds”, one of the first publications to rely on a visual approach to identification, rather than the lengthy, technical and difficult to use taxonomies, thereby opening out and making information more accessible to the many. MacLeod’s work embodies this same impulse.

To further elaborate the process inherent in MacLeod’s practice and the move between gallery and public space, other works presented include the small-scale sculptural maquette of The Birds and the original sculpture—a small wooden log and initial plaster casts taken from it—that were used to form the basis for Wood for the People (2002), a permanent installation of 230 cast concrete logs outside the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver.

Acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker at the opening of the International Ornithological Congress. Prompted by Atwood’s conference speech where she pointed out that although cats are the major killers of migratory songbirds in North America, she was interested in creating a positive conversation around cats and birds that ‘didn’t completely annoy cat people’, MacLeod produced a wall-hanging woven felt piece Purr, Purr, Purr (2018). Characteristically this embodies the underlying playful humour present in her work while encompassing her ongoing interest in more profound environmental concerns.

Neighbours is generously supported by BC Arts Council, the High Commission of Canada to the United Kingdom and The Dahdaleh Foundation.