If you were to peer through the bay window of Irving Contemporary’s East Oxford gallery, you might think you were looking through a window onto a coppice of birch trees, the warm light gleaming on the pale trunks, writes Vanessa Lacey

But this vision is one of the stunning paintings of birches by artist Kate Sherman, which, measuring four feet wide, seems to open up a window in the wall onto this quiet, reflective scene

It is part of Water | Land, the winter exhibition at Irving Contemporary showing work by five artists – Kate Sherman, Amanda Harman, Tania Rutland, Abigail Reed, and Sarah Needham.

While the gallery has had to close its doors for now, due to the lockdown, the exhibition remains available to view online on Irving Contemporary’s website with the digital version and installation photographs recreating the inspired curation and relationships between artworks that you would see in the gallery.

This beautiful exhibition explores connections with the land, especially local landscapes or places that we return to again and again.

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The open spaces close to where we live and walk, in changing lights and weather conditions, through all the seasons.

It also explores the intense feelings of longing and nostalgia, of memory and history, that are intrinsically bound up with our relationships to certain places. In this year overshadowed by the pandemic our relationship with the spaces around us has been heightened.

Our need to find solace in nature has intensified.

Oxford Mail: Irving Gallery, OxfordIrving Gallery, Oxford

This is not an exhibition of lockdown landscapes and not all the work on show was created during this difficult time. Nonetheless, that heightened sensitivity and connection to the landscapes that surround us is palpable in this show.

In this exhibition you will find beautiful, evocative birch tree paintings, images of dusk, and bird’s-eye-view ink landscapes of the Sussex Downs by Kate Sherman, who recently won the ING Discerning Eye Humphreys Purchase Prize; stunning photographs full of reflections and breath-taking details of the watery landscape of the Somerset Levels by photographer Amanda Harman; the atmospheric semi-abstract paintings, etchings, and pencil-and-graphite drawings of the South Downs by Brighton-based Tania Rutland which capture the changing weather so brilliantly; velvety rich charcoal drawings of the Somerset landscape by Abigail Reed; and landscape-inspired works on paper and on canvas by abstract artist Sarah Needham who is fascinated by the way pigments leave traces of our interactions in material colour across human history and geography.

Oxford Mail: Irving Gallery, Oxford online showIrving Gallery, Oxford online show

Kate Sherman’s paintings originate from photographs she has taken of her surrounding Sussex landscape. This photographic source is important because the paintings capture a reflective notion of memory, of the emotional distance between a real landscape and a photograph, between experience and longing. Over the last year, Kate has returned to a small group of silver birch trees close to where she lives, photographing the trees at different times of day and throughout the year. This almost obsessive, concentrated study of the birch trees has resulted in a beautiful body of work, in which light plays on and is reflected off the pale trunks of the silver birch trees in different conditions, while another group of paintings explores the fading light of dusk.

Amanda Harman is an award-winning photographer, whose work in recent years has focused on landscape and place. Amanda writes: “By observing a place for months, and often years, I seek to reveal the unseen and the insignificant, and by quiet observation, elevate the beauty of ordinary and overlooked places.”

The photographs exhibited here tell the story of the fluid landscape of the Somerset Levels, tracing encounters with the changing of the seasons, the gradual return of marsh flora and fauna, the constant shifting of light, weather and tides; a reflection on the nature of impermanence and of transformation.

These are extraordinarily beautiful, reflective images which draw you in to their watery world.

Brighton-based Tania Rutland specialises in semi abstract landscapes of Sussex and the beautiful South Downs countryside. Her preferred mediums are oil painting, etching, and pencil and graphite on paper, and all are present in this show. Tania’s fascination with the way in which generations of human activity down the years has shaped the landscape of the countryside of both East and West Sussex is visible within her work, which feels both timeless and ancient. She is drawn to what is left behind through the consequence of human presence and is fascinated by the constant flux of weather.

Abigail Reed is an artist living and working in Frome, Somerset. Abigail has recently been making a body of monochromatic work looking at trees and forests, in Somerset and the Forest of Dean, as well as a series of drawings of a local abandoned quarry, all drawn in rich charcoal on paper.

In these drawings Abigail uses compressed charcoal and mini erasers to capture the skeletal branches of trees, or the spindly silver birch saplings growing in the quarry.

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Abigail has described her isolation walks during the spring and summer lockdown of 2020 around the deserted space of a disused quarry, saying: “Now abandoned, nature is reclaiming the space and filling it with silver birch trees and wild animals. It’s a place of desolation and hope in equal measure.”

Sarah Needham is a visual artist working in London who is concerned with human interconnectedness, and the interplay between the personal and the universal as expressed though the material of pigment.

Sarah makes her oil paints by hand from the relevant pigments that resonate with her current project. The exhibition includes a new series of works on paper, “My Uncle’s Farm”, in memory of her uncle, a farmer on the North Yorkshire moors, who died earlier this year.

Sarah sourced her pigments for these works from the farm where her uncle spent his life: Yorkshire ochre from the moors where he had roaming rights; the rust from the bits of saved metal that were stored in his barns.

She says: “In my work I believe that the pigments I use carry stories, memories of lives lived, and some stories never told, and that is never more true than in this collection of works on paper.”

  • Water | Land at Irving Contemporary will be available to view online until January 31 at irvingcontemporary.com/exhibitions/water-land/
  • All artwork can be purchased on the website or by contacting the gallery.
  • The gallery in Essex Street, East Oxford, is closed for lockdown. Details: vanessa@ irvingcontemporary.com