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About the Exhibition

Every natural system on earth is now defined by human activity, with planetary boundaries being rapidly and dangerously breached. This exhibition witnesses the quirks and tragedies of our time, evoking love for the ecologically rickety world we have shaped.

It started with a painting of a South Carolina Parakeet. I first saw one in a natural history museum here in Montreal. It was a small, faded specimen in the corner of a glass vitrine in the lobby. Its label said ‘disparu’ - ‘disappeared’ or extinct in French. The South Carolina Parakeet was the only parrot species native to eastern North America. The cause of its extinction was entirely man-made: it was essentially shot out of existence.

I have always had a deep need to witness and preserve through my work: to grip time and memories with paint. When I started painting the Parakeet, I felt a sense of responsibility to it. I was worried about not getting it right, about getting something wrong in the shape of the beak, or perhaps its stance, and thus betraying its memory. My experience with this extinct bird links to another moment important to this body of work, also concerning birds, also parakeets. 

There are a lot of birds in this exhibition, but you’ll notice that most of them are not extinct, or even endangered. Actually, quite the opposite. Most are common in our cities and homes - budgies, pigeons. In 2015, I was in Paris for the Conference of The Parties, the UN’s annual climate change meeting. On a wintery walk in a park I saw a large flock of brilliant green birds alight on the bare branches of a tree, squawking loudly. They were Rose-ringed Parakeets, escaped pets that now have large thriving populations in many European cities. In the midst of the intense climate negotiations of the conference, these birds seemed something magical, the flash of their exotic feathers against the hard surfaces of the city: a whisper of wilderness. Their resilience freed me to attempt to capture the beauty and banality of an ecologically messy world.

From these two encounters: the phantom limb of what is no longer there, and the utter audacity of life that tenaciously survives (or even thrives) in the most human of landscapes, other reflections ensued: ghostly flowers from suburban gardens, animals caught in camera traps, animals that live closely to us, and animals that live on the peripheries of our existence. These works are love letters to a muted natural world. They look past our scorched earth onslaught to the beauty and life that yet persists, telling us a story of something that is always shifting and dissolving beyond our grasp.

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Claassens' exhibition features a companion essay to the paintings by Nina-Marie Lister (Associate Professor & Director, Graduate Program in Planning and Director, Ecological Design Lab, Ryerson University). There was also an online Artist Talk conversation held between Lister and the artist, hosted in collaboration with The Nature of Cities, an international platform for greener cities. 

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